Corizon, which handles all inmate health care in the county, made the cuts days after Christmas.
The cuts were confirmed by Corizon and detailed by the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represented the nurses during the layoffs.
“According to the nurses in the jails, it’s a disaster,” said Dennis Dugan, an organizer for the union.
The laid off employees will be furloughed until mid-January, but are no longer working at the jails.
Blair Behrens, a licensed vocational nurse who had worked at the jail for 24 years, said she was “flabbergasted” when Corizon first told employees in late December that they were planning to eliminate all vocational nurses.
“There was no plan,” she said.Behrens said her former co-workers have told her that the employees left are having trouble keeping up with the work demands.
“Santa Rita is almost decimated,” Behrens said. “The nurses that you do have left are tired, burned out and confused.”
Dugan said nurses were being compelled to work double shifts and take on extra assignments at an unsustainable pace.
The layoffs are the unintended result of a settlement Corizon and the county brokered in 2015 in response to a lawsuit over an in-custody death at Santa Rita.
The children of Martin Harrison filed suit alleging their father wouldn’t have died during a confrontation with prison guards if nurses had realized he was suffering from alcohol withdrawal during his intake screening.
In addition to an $8.3 million settlement, Corizon agreed to have only registered nurses — not licensed vocational nurses — conduct assessment screenings, starting this month.
Martha Harbin, a Florida-based spokeswoman for Corizon, said the company was conducting a long-planned transition to swap out licensed vocational nurses for registered nurses. Harbin said the company has begun hiring registered nurses, of which they intended to add more than 43 by the end of February.
Harbin was unable to say how many registered nurses had been hired as of Wednesday.
Julia Sherwin, one of the attorneys who handled the Harrison case, said Corizon had been aware since February of the requirement and that she was dismayed to hear about the nature of the job cuts.
“The point of the agreement was for California jail inmates to receive better — not worse — care, so that what happened to Martin Harrison would not happen to any other jail inmate under Corizon’s care,” Sherwin said.
Dugan said Corizon initially wanted to axe all 67 vocational nurses, until they were informed by the union that state law prohibited them for firing more than 50. He said that in negotiations Corizon had pledged to mitigate the layoffs with new hires, but that had yet to occur.
Corizon has a $250 million, eight-year contract with the county to provide health care to inmates through 2016.
The company also came under fire this summer from relatives of Mario Martinez, an inmate who died from an asthma attack at Santa Rita. Martinez’s family alleged he wouldn’t have died if he had better treatment for nasal polyps that obstructed his breathing.
New York officials booted Corizon from Rikers Island jail this summer after an investigation revealed that errors by employees may have contributed to problems ranging from inmate deaths to hiring staff with violent criminal convictions.