By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Given a choice between becoming a doctor or a nurse, Cornelius Henderson decided on nurse.
“It’s expensive to be a doctor, but after experiencing the medical field in the U.S. Air Force, all the doctors were colonels, and they were cranky and always upset. I realized I didn’t want to be like them,” he said. “The nurses were a lot more fun. To me, it seemed like they enjoyed their job a lot more, so I kind of gravitated toward nursing.”
Henderson, an Alabama native, is now the senior vice president of jail operations with NaphCare Inc. He’s back home now and presiding over the company’s transition, or new setup, as it assumes the role of overseeing health care management at Jefferson County jails in Birmingham and Bessemer beginning on June 1.
“I have a team in the jail. We’re getting everybody hired and working out the processes for how NaphCare’s proactive care model is going to work in Jefferson County,” said Henderson. “We’re governed by the National Commission for Correctional Healthcare [NCCCH], which has a set of standards for delivering care in jails or prisons. We use those standards in our policies and procedures.”
Birmingham-based NaphCare, founded in 1989, has more than $300 million in annual revenues and 2,000-plus employees.
Henderson acknowledges that the company is coming into Jefferson County at a precarious time.
“COVID-19 makes [care] a lot more challenging because there is a huge risk when going in and out of correctional facilities, with [the disease] in the city, so we have to take a lot of precautions,” he said. “We have to wear masks and gloves and practice hand washing and social distancing. … It is quite tough inside of a jail because it is a confined area and space. We have to be very careful how we interact with our staff and inmates, which kind of slows the process down, but we’re managing well and have experience with pandemics or illnesses.”
Henderson, 39, is no stranger to overseeing jails. He currently manages health care in the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, Georgia, and has managed the company’s transitions into managing more than 10 jails in Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Texas, and other states.
“Every jail is different and challenging in its own way, but the way we provide care is the same,” he said. “We’re taking care of one of the most disenfranchised populations [in society]. These are the people no one cares about, people who [many in society] believe don’t need or deserve care. What keeps me going is knowing that when I’m there managing your jail, the inmates are going to get proper care and … get what they need.”
Henderson is originally from Wetumpka, Alabama, where grew up with seven older siblings and one younger.
“I had a normal childhood. I would play outside, drink water from the water hose, eat berries and plums,” he said. “[When I attended Wetumpka] High School, I was an All-American in wrestling and [number six in the nation]. I was all-state, all-region, and all-American my senior year, as well.”
Growing up, Henderson thought he wanted to be a doctor.
“I used to dissect frogs in my backyard,” he said. “When I got to anatomy class in high school, I realized I was dissecting them the right way because the technique was the same. I was always curious about the human body or bodies in general and how bodies function, starting with frogs.”
After graduating from high school in 1998, Henderson attended the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he studied biology.
“I went to UAB for a semester and realized that I needed some money for school, so I left UAB and went to the Air Force,” he said.
Henderson completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and then attended tech school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas. After completing his training, he joined the Air Force Reserves and became a senior airman medic and worked at various hospitals, including Birmingham’s Brookwood, and other clinics before he applied for and was accepted into nursing school at Lawson State Community College (LSCC).
“While I was there, I was part of the student association in the nursing school,” Henderson said. “The chief nursing officer for NaphCare at the time was my last clinical instructor. Because I was the class president [in the nursing school at LSCC], he saw how I was managing the students and asked for my resume. … On the last day of clinicals, [when nurses work with real patients in a supervised setting with instructors], he interviewed me for a job at NaphCare.
“I told him I wanted a job, but I asked him where it was. He said he didn’t have anything in Birmingham; the only thing he had available was in Las Vegas, [Nevada], where I had never been. … Once I told him that, they flew me out to the facility, I got to tour, and it was a wrap after that.”
Henderson graduated from the LSCC nursing school in 2009 and missed his nursing school graduation ceremony to move to Las Vegas and begin his job with NaphCare.
The first time inside a jail in the Clark County Detention Center near Las Vegas as a staff registered nurse was a new world for Henderson.
“Initially, it was scary,” He said. “It was my first time being in a jail and dealing with inmates firsthand. I was kind of nervous, but I got used to it. I understood that even though they were incarcerated, they’re still people. We don’t judge people by what they do; we’re there to take care of them medically, so whatever their charges are don’t matter to us.”
Henderson worked at the Clark County Detention Center for two years and continued to move up the ranks at NaphCare.
“I came back to the corporate office [in Birmingham] and started applying for licenses in the different states where we have facilities,” he said. “Once I got my licenses, I started traveling to all the facilities, doing the training, managing sites on a lower level, creating orientations, and eventually helping with new contracts, what we call transitions. I just filled multiple roles in the company.”
Henderson’s positions have included health services administrator, corporate regional director of nursing, and vice president of operations. In 2016, he was promoted to senior vice president of operations, a role in which he is responsible for managing health care for eight facilities. He often takes the lead on what services the company offers.
“I do a presentation with the sales team and tell how we’re going to implement our proactive care model into the jail,” he said.
One of the biggest challenges, aside from COVID-19, has been the opioid crisis, Henderson said: “People thought you couldn’t die from opioid withdrawal. Then people started dying, so we had to regroup and manage that crisis, [which] we did by partnering with a lot of community agencies.”
Henderson is excited to be back home in Alabama, working in Jefferson County.
“We’re coming in to improve care and how it is delivered, to make sure we treat patients that need care and make sure people leave better than they came,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the partnership with Sheriff [Mark] Pettway because they want to do things the right way—they want to do right by the inmates and make sure they get proper care.”