RNs fired for citing inmates’ poor care in many Minnesota jails, lawsuit says

Three Anoka County jail inmates died in 2023 after falling ill in jail. The three RNs are suing the contractor, which is still providing nursing staff for the facility. 

Three women are claiming in a lawsuit that they were fired as contracted nurses for reporting troubling lapses in medical care for inmates in jails, including the one in Anoka County where three men fell fatally ill last year.

The suit filed last week against Tennessee-based Advanced Correctional Healthcare and its subcontractor, USA Medical & Psychological Staffing, alleges the women lost their jobs as registered nurses after complaining that ACH was “putting patients in danger of serious injury or death due to their failures and refusals to properly care for those patients.”

Allegations include that, along with providing negligent medical care, ACH allowed chronic understaffing and did not schedule registered nurses at times in favor of lesser-skilled licensed practical nurses “or no nurses at all” in violation of state regulations and contract requirements.

Melissa Neumann was fired in August, Autumn Hirsch in January and Heidi Brown in February, according to the suit. Following their reports to ACH, they contend, all three were subjected to “unwarranted criticism, hostility and discipline.”

Numerous messages for reaction to the suit were left with ACH, which promotes itself as the nation’s largest provider of health care in hundreds of jails, juvenile detention centers, mental health units, work-release centers and drug rehabilitation facilities in 22 states.

Anoka County, which first signed on with ACH in 2022, continues to do so for the care of its jail inmates, Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Tierney Peters said Monday. Peters otherwise declined to comment about the allegations leveled against ACH in the suit.

Three inmates died in the Anoka County jail last year while under the care of ACH: Richard S. Daily II, 36; Cristian Rivera-Coba, 22; and Miles W. Jackson, 24.

State death records show that Daily died of a fentanyl overdose; Jackson succumbed to complications from a gastric ulcer perforation; and Rivera-Coba died from “excessive administration of water [during] opioid withdrawal.”

Opioid withdrawal can cause vomiting and diarrhea, potentially leading a person to try to stay hydrated. Also, someone in withdrawal might drink a large amount of water under the mistaken notion that it would speed up the detoxification process. In either situation, drinking too much water can be fatal.

Rivera-Coba became ill when there was no registered nurse on duty to supervise the two licensed practical nurses working at the time, the suit alleged.

A jail deputy told one of the ACH nurses that Rivera-Coba looked “awful,” the suit read, and the nurse allegedly replied, “They all look awful.”

The women’s attorney, Lori Peterson, said that “ACH’s chronic understaffing and retention of substandard staff — who won’t even leave their office to help a dying inmate — is inexcusable. ACH leaves families of detainees as well as county employees, and even their own employees, devastated over the deaths and injuries resulting from ACH’s failure to provide even the most basic care.”

The State Department of Corrections reviews deaths of jail inmates to determine what rules may have been violated. A spokesman for the agency said Monday he would check to see what conclusions, if any, the DOC has reached in connection with the Anoka County inmate deaths.

Along with Anoka County, the allegations also pointed to substandard care in jails in Benton, Dakota, Isanti, Itasca, Kanabec, Mille Lacs and Pine counties in Minnesota, and numerous others in Wisconsin, Peterson said.

The women contend ACH violated the state’s whistleblower law and defamed them. They are seeking at least $100,000 in damages, recovery of lost earnings and compensation for emotional, physical and mental anguish. The suit was filed in Ramsey County District Court because ACH bases its Minnesota operations in St. Paul.

ACH has been a defendant in many suits over the years around the country alleging negligent care. A prominent case wrapped up in 2022, when ACH reached a settlement with the estate of a Missouri inmate who died of lung cancer in 2020 after being given little to no medical attention. Initially, jurors in a trial ordered ACH to pay $8.5 million. The settlement for an undisclosed amount was reached after ACH challenged the total and pushed for a new trial.

“ACH puts profits over people,” Peterson said. “A multitude of deaths, serious injuries and lawsuits nationwide has shown that ACH cannot be trusted with the health and lives of people in its care.”