Prisons' 911 use raises doubts

Inmate transport for non-life-threatening injuries costs Arundel

Sun Follow-up

October 01, 2006|By Annie Linskey and Greg Garland | Annie Linskey and Greg Garland,SUN REPORTERS

Officials at the state prison complex in Jessup are requesting emergency ambulance service for inmates who are not sick or injured enough to merit locally funded transportation to hospitals, a Sun review of Anne Arundel County records shows, raising concerns among fire officials that county services are being improperly used.

One of every four 911 calls that the county Fire Department has responded to in Jessup in the first eight months of the year appears to have been for non-life-threatening injuries, according to call data reviewed by The Sun. Under the Fire Department's policy, only inmates who are at risk of dying are supposed to be taken to hospitals in county ambulances.

"We don't want our services abused," said Deputy Chief John Scholtz of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. "We hope to get those numbers better."

Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Ronald D. Blackwell said the department will "continue to monitor the numbers" but cautioned: "I wouldn't make the leap to abuse at this point."

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, noted that the state houses more than 6,000 inmates in the Jessup region. "It is far from easy to assess each and every patient with 100 percent certainty, but on the whole, the medical staff do an outstanding job, and it isn't always easy to assess what level of medical care they might need," Vernarelli said.

He and other prison system officials said Jessup's one infirmary to treat injured or ill inmates - staffed by a private contractor - can provide basic care but isn't equipped to deal with more serious injuries or illnesses. That means some inmates have to be taken to hospital emergency rooms for diagnosis and treatment, they said.

Under Fire Department policy, inmates who are injured or ill but don't require immediate medical assistance are supposed to be transported to the hospital through a private ambulance service paid for with state dollars. Anne Arundel County does not charge the state prisons for ambulance trips.

John R. Hammond, the county's budget officer, estimated that it costs the county at least $350 per ambulance ride. Officials at several private ambulance companies contacted said they charge $250, plus $9 a mile, for a nonemergency trip to the hospital.

Since Jan. 1, ambulances from the Anne Arundel Fire Department been called to the prisons in Jessup 196 times, county records show.

Many 911 calls are for injuries that inmates suffer in violent attacks - a particular problem for maximum-security prisons in Jessup that have been the site of much prison violence for more than a year. The biggest problems have been at the House of Correction in Jessup, where a correctional officer was stabbed to death in July.

However, 49 of the 196 calls were labeled by the fire dispatchers as "Priority 3" - or not life-threatening. The fire dispatcher notes attached to some of these low emergency calls include one described as: "traumatic injury - not dangerous." Another was described as: "fall, not dangerous injury." A third read: "maternity: birth not imminent."

State officials say they have not received complaints from other counties with large state prison complexes about the cost of responding to 911 ambulance calls or that such calls are being made for illnesses or injuries that don't warrant emergency transports.

In Anne Arundel, emergency crews are required to respond anytime the Fire Department is called, even if the call sounds like it is a low priority to the dispatcher. When they arrive at the scene, paramedics are required to take the inmate to a hospital, even if it seems apparent that the inmate is not in a dire condition.

Fire Department officials cautioned that the call numbers they provided could paint a misleading picture, saying that their figures are based on data that comes into their emergency call center - not an assessment by a doctor.

The Fire Department also stressed that there are some non-life-threatening situations where it is proper for the county to pick up prisoners. One such call arose on Sept. 11, when two prisoners got in a fight and one inmate apparently sliced off another inmate's finger. Although the victim was not in an immediate life-threatening situation, he needed to be taken to a specialist quickly to increase the odds that his finger could be reattached.

But there was enough concern in the ranks that the county fire union president, Bob Stevens, complained to management. "We have had some concerns that the policy hasn't been followed," he said. "We took our concerns to our administration. They acted on it immediately."

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