Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

The real death panels––withholding medical care in prison


What you’ll read today

  • Spotlight: The real death panels––withholding medical care in prison

  • ICE is using driver’s license applications to arrest immigrants

  • Overdoses, riots, and escapes roil a rural Kentucky jail

  • California police misconduct transparency law survives sheriff challenge

  • Criminal justice in 2018, as covered by the Intercept

  • Tallying the lives taken by police in 2018

  • New report reveals number of people in federal prison for child pornography offenses has nearly septupled since 2004

In the Spotlight

The real death panels––withholding medical care in prison

Harold Millican believes that the Texas prison system and a jail warden are guilty of “callous indifference.” He is suing them because, he says, when he was doing a short jail stint for drugs, officials refused to take him to the hospital to treat a flesh-eating bacteria infection, letting it fester for a week. In a federal claim filed last month, Millican says he was not cared for until he went into shock and fell unconscious. He had told staff about the injury, and his mother made calls, but was told there was “no one available to take him to the hospital.” The lawsuit demands the Texas prison system improve training so officers facilitate adequate medical treatment. Some experts say this case shows how chronic understaffing can lead to prisoner harm; others say it highlights the need for independent oversight, a need underscored by a Texas prison spokesperson’s comment: “The offender received both appropriate and timely medical care.” [Keri Blakinger / Houston Chronicle]

When Jennifer Addison, a woman imprisoned in Virginia, developed a similar infection to Millican’s, she was not as lucky. Last March, she submitted a request for medical attention, writing, “My throat is sora [sic], Im having hot/cold sweats, and throwing up everything I eat or drink.” On an emergency grievance form two days later, she wrote, “I still can’t keep anything down and my throat is still hurting me. I need some help please.” A nurse responded by checking a box: “Your grievance does not meet the definition for an emergency.” Two days later, Addison was dead. Her cause of death was listed as the flu and MRSA—a bacterial infection that led to a blood infection. “She shouldn’t have died of that. That’s totally treatable,” said Deborah Golden, an attorney at the Human Rights Defense Center. “Anyone who wasn’t holding food down for six days would have gone to the ER.” [Katherine Hafner and Gary Harki / Virginian-Pilot]

In 2012, a lawsuit against a nearby women’s facility, Fluvanna, alleged a “systemic, pervasive and on-going” failure to meet minimum standards of medical care, including refusing medication and doctor visits. They reached a settlement that installed a compliance monitor, but two years later, plaintiffs in a new lawsuit say officials have failed to improve care. A Miami-based contractor, Armor Correctional Health Services provides medical services, but plaintiffs argue that they are unable to do so sufficiently. “We do not have the resources to adequately address this settlement agreement,” Fluvanna’s then-Warden Jeffrey Dillman said in an internal letter in 2017. “We are destined to fail.” The problems stem in part from a flawed grievance system, a very real version of the much-feared “death panels” that the Tea Party invented to stir up fear of the Affordable Care Act: Once a prisoner asks in writing for help, the form is reviewed by prison staff, who accept or reject the request. “I think the system [is] designed to discourage people from seeking care and to encourage staff to find the quickest, least expensive way to get rid of the complaints,” said the plaintiffs’ attorney, adding that corrections officials have resisted changes, clinging to a system whereby the bar for what constitutes emergency is far too high: “Basically, if it were a true emergency you probably wouldn’t be able to fill out an emergency grievance.” [Katherine Hafner and Gary Harki / Virginian-Pilot]

In her experience as a public defender, this writer has seen her sick clients failed over and over by inadequate resources, but she has also seen clients failed by a culture that treats incarcerated people as fakers and liars, not as people who need care. As she heard one prison official say, on a tour, about the Prison Rape Elimination Act, “That is just a tool that prisoners use to manipulate staff.”

In the case of a 23-year-old Georgia man who suffered two seizures right after being booked into a jail, the doctor and nurses ordered medical treatment “immediately,” but officers simply dumped him in a cell for almost an hour, for “observation.” A nurse finally found him, but by then it was too late. “Unfortunately, we’ve had so many seizures around here it’s kind of like, I relate it to the story of the boy who cried wolf,” explained Sgt. Martin Campbell. [Randy Travis / Fox 5]

In Connecticut, where prison doctors’ requests for patients to see specialists were often delayed and denied, and where state funding for prisoner healthcare had been cut drastically, officials are looking for solutions. Last year, the state corrections department, led by progressive Scott Semple, took over managing healthcare in its facilities; the department decided to approve every request prison doctors make for specialized treatment. “Now if a doctor decides they need something … they just get it. That has been an improvement,” said a nurse supervisor. But it won’t be this way for much longer because the department is setting up a system that will determine “community standards of care” to determine what treatments will be provided. “Hiring the staff we need would mean that an inmate could see a doctor in days rather than waiting for months,” said David Pickus, president of the union that represents medical staff. “This decision to underfund services has serious consequences for human lives.” A local social worker said: “We can only do so much in a shift. We can only help so many people. This is not why we went into this profession … We’ve been very quiet for a lot of years [about] how the budget cuts have impacted the prisons.” [Jacqueline Rabe Thomas and Clarice Silber / Connecticut Mirror]

The good news is that even where funding is unavailable, progress can be made with cultural shifts: One of them might be to take medical complaints seriously. That is something that officers and medical staff alike can do, today.

Stories From The Appeal

 

Photo illustration by Anagraph. Photo by asiseeit/Getty Images

ICE Is Using Driver’s License Applications to Arrest Immigrants. More states are giving undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses, but many DMVs are sharing their information with ICE. [Debbie Nathan]

Overdoses, Riots, and Escapes Roil a Rural Kentucky Jail. The Boyd County Detention Center has been consumed in chaos, even as the DOJ investigates it. Now, the community is pinning hopes for reform on a new jailer. [Zachary A. Siegel]

Stories From Around the Country

California police misconduct transparency law survives sheriff challenge: A new California law provides public access to police-misconduct and use-of-force records, but a sheriffs union sought an emergency intervention from the California Supreme Court to block the law before it went into effect on Jan. 1 of this year. Yesterday, the court denied that request. Senate Bill 1421 gives public access to internal records on police shootings, use of force by officers, and complaints of sexual assault by on-duty officers. The union wanted the new law to apply only to records created after Jan. 1, 2019, arguing that California law gives heightened privacy protections to police officers. Supporters worried that law enforcement agencies could destroy old records, and Inglewood, just outside of Los Angeles, said last month that it would shred more than 100 police records dating back to 1991, describing the action as a routine purging of “obsolete” materials. [Nathan Solis / Courthouse News]

Tallying the lives taken by police in 2018: For the fourth year, The Washington Post has published data on police killings. The paper reports not only the total number––986, down by one from last year’s total––but includes information on each person killed by police, such as name, age, location, whether the person was armed, fleeing, or mentally ill, if the incident was captured on body camera, and links to local news coverage. There is also a section on the Post’s methodology. [The Washington Post]

New report reveals number of people in federal prison for child pornography offenses has nearly septupled since 2004: A report published yesterday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission says 8,508 federal prisoners were serving time for child pornography offenses in fiscal year 2016, up from 1,259 in FY 2004. Most are serving mandatory sentences of five years or more, and most are for crimes that did not involve assault or sexual abuse. “In fiscal year 2016, for example, 1,565 people were sentenced for possessing, receiving, or distributing child pornography, but only 80 (5 percent) were also convicted of production or another form of sexual abuse,” reports Reason magazine. Judges often have to impose mandatory minimum sentences, but when they have discretion, they “typically use it to impose sentences shorter than those recommended by federal guidelines.” This indicates that “federal judges view the current sentencing scheme as excessively harsh, a complaint some of them have publicly voiced.” [Jacob Sullum / Reason]

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you tomorrow.

Have a tip for The Appeal? Write to us at tips@theappeal.org. A good tip is a clear description of newsworthy information that is supported by documented evidence.

Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.