The medical services provided to inmates of Utah State Prison may be headed for "a catastrophe of monumental proportions" due to mass staff exodus, according to a prison program director.
The concern was expressed in an interoffice memo dated Oct. 19 written by Richard Burt, who was acting bureau chief of the prison's support-services division.A copy of the memo was mailed anonymously to the Deseret News and arrived only days after an evaluation of the medical services sought by the American Civil Liberties Union was made public by the state Department of Corrections.
The evaluation, done after the ACLU threatened a class-action lawsuit earlier this year based on numerous complaints of prisoner mistreatment, recommended some 60 improvements in the medical-services department.
Burt said in the memo that "the system is extremely vulnerable, and that given the right set of circumstances a catastrophe of monumental proportions could be presented to our capacity to provide essential medical-delivery services . . . ."
He continued that the Department of Corrections must establish contingency plans for providing medical care to prisoners and suggested that the governor enlist the help of the National Guard or the state Health Department if the situation becomes more dire.
"Under the worst scenario we will not have the luxury of time to negotiate a contract with the private sector," the memo read, adding that there is little prospect that adequate employees could be recruited quickly.
Burt cited in the memo comments he said were made by Lloyd Gatherum, acting administrator of the prison medical-service department, at an Oct. 19 staff meeting at which Gatherum announced he was resigning.
According to the memo, Gatherum "presented a very disturbing picture about operation morale, suggesting a very high probability of a mass staff exodus due to the belief of inadequate program support . . . ."
That belief especially pertained to "recent media characterizations depicting poor quality of medical-service delivery," the memo stated, adding that "it seems irrelevant as to whether the perceptions are accurate - the fact seems to be that they are entertained with very strong conviction."
The memo said that five employees are leaving or have left the medical-services department and suggested that two of the prison's three part-time doctors might resign.
Asked if he would be interviewed about the memo, Burt said, "If it's all right with the department it's all right with me."
However, a spokesman for the Corrections Department said there will be no comment allowed on issues related to the medical-services department until the evaluation of the prison medical services had been reviewed.
Gary DeLand, executive director of the Corrections Department, had initially declined to make the results of the evaluation public but did so Oct. 26 "in an effort to reduce any further confusion that may have been generated through news reports."
In a Deseret News interview last week, DeLand had referred to being told through a letter, apparently Burt's memo, of five employees resigning because of "bad press" over the prison medical program.
The memo had been sent to prison superintendent David Franchina. Neither DeLand nor Franchina were immediately available for comment.
News stories about the report recounted several past incidents of alleged negligence by medical-department employees, including a pending ACLU lawsuit against the prison on behalf of the mother of an inmate who died in October 1983 after initially being denied medical treatment.