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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Vargas Vidot slams DCR mental health services provider Physician Correctional

Sen. José Vargas Vidot

Citing poor performance that he says may have led to the death of a woman in custody, senator insists contract should not be renewed

By The Star Staff

Independent Sen. José Vargas Vidot rejected on Monday the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR)’s plan to renew a contract with Physician Correctional, citing its poor performance in providing mental health services for the inmate population.

The Senate Mental Health Committee investigated the events related to the death last year of Shannel Colón Ponce, a woman who allegedly killed herself while in custody over car theft charges.

Vargas Vidot accused the firm of dealing poorly with the woman’s mental health problems. During a Senate probe into the death of Colón Ponce, Vargas Vidot said he asked Raúl Villalobos, president of Physician Correctional, if it was true that a psychiatrist did not see the young woman in relation to her symptoms. Villalobos said he would provide information confirming that she was treated, but the evidence never reached the Senate panel.

At the time in which Colón Ponce was admitted, the DCR’s Women’s Center for Rehabilitation had one psychiatrist and one psychologist.

“How is it possible? Is this number sufficient to serve the correctional population?” the senator said. “This number reflects how the lack of attention and personnel could have been a decisive factor in the case of Colón Ponce, and that she could be alive.”

The Senate probe found the following:

1. The DCR failed in its duty to safeguard the safety of Shannel Colón Ponce.

2. Physician Correctional breached its contractual duty by not having the staff adequately address Colón Ponce’s mental health issues. In an act of negligence, she was discharged and returned to the correctional institution, where she subsequently took her own life.

3. Physician Correctional has been in material breach of the contract with the DCR by failing to comply with the obligations of Article 12 on providing monthly reports.

4. The DCR has failed in its duty to monitor Physician Correctional.

5. The DCR must cancel the contract of Physician Correctional and not renew it. The DCR must ensure that the contracted company guarantees the physical and emotional well-being of the incarcerated population -- men, women and minors. It has been proven that Physician Correctional is unable to achieve this.

6. Collaboration between the DCR and the island Health Department is called for.

7. A protocol must be developed to train DCR personnel on the management of people with mental health issues.

In January 2022, Colón Ponce began to suffer from a mental health diagnosis for which she received medical treatment and required hospitalization through the York County Court in Pennsylvania. She was hospitalized at York Hospital, where she received treatment for her condition and was discharged. In April the young woman arrived in Puerto Rico. Her aunt, Cheilian Rosario, found out through the news that her niece was linked to the theft of a car. When she communicated with niece, Colón Ponce told her that she was being chased, so to escape from her pursuers she took the vehicle.

Realizing that her niece was having mental problems, Rosario coordinated her delivery to the Puerto Rico Police Bureau.

On April 22, the Police Bureau filed a complaint against the young woman. A judge found cause to arrest Colón Ponce and set bail at $10,000, which she could not pay.

At a preliminary hearing in May 2022, a Legal Aid Society lawyer, Zamarys Benítez, requested a psychiatric evaluation. Considering this, the hearing was suspended and scheduled for June 10. However, Colón Ponce allegedly killed herself without ever having received a psychiatric evaluation.

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