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The Health of Our Prisons

August 2004

By Jon VanZile

LE Magazine August 2004
The Health of Our Prisons
By Jon VanZile

In December 2003, Robert Treadway awoke in the middle of the night and knew something was terribly, perhaps even fatally, wrong. He awoke to a terrible smell and his bed was soaked with blood.

Frightened, he did what any concerned person would do—he called for help. But for people in Treadway’s condition, help is hard to come by. He is one of 2 million adults imprisoned in the US. Treadway is serving time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Yazoo City, MS.

“They took me to the medical center, where the prison doctor, Dr. Anthony Chambers, took a scalpel and cut my navel open,” Treadway says. “There was no anesthetic, and it hurt real bad. Then they sent me back to my cell.”

Just a week before, Treadway had been sent to a hospital in nearby Vicksburg, MS, where surgeons operated on a hernia that had been bothering him since July. He was sent back to prison the same day of the operation.

Treadway spent the following week in horrible pain, but received no care from the prison medical staff. Internal medical records indicate that Yazoo’s physicians recommended that he get a new wound dressing on December 14, but there is no record of him actually receiving any postsurgical care.

By all accounts, he was left to fend for himself after major surgery. To receive his pain medication, he was forced to walk to the “pill line” three times a day. Meanwhile, the pain continued to worsen, until the fateful night of December 17, when it first occurred to him that he might not live through this experience.

If prison officials were worried about his condition, there is no evidence of it. After treating him that night, they again sent him back to his cell. Later the next day, Treadway was once again forced to walk to the pill line under his own power.

Finally, someone took mercy on him. A prison nurse, T. Clarkson, saw his condition and told him to go sit in the medical center. According to Treadway, she immediately recognized the smell on him as gangrene, a potentially fatal infection of wounded flesh.

“She said, ‘You’ve got to go to the hospital,’” Treadway recalls. “I really believe she saved my life.”

Once again, Treadway was taken to the Vicksburg hospital, where doctors removed a four-inch section of his abdomen, including his navel.

The Exception or the Rule?
Treadway’s case is tragic yet unremarkable. With news of prisoner abuse in Iraq dominating the headlines, the President himself proclaimed “that is not the America I know.” The abusers are described as “a few bad apples” or rogue MPs acting outside their legal authority. Our government officials congratulate themselves on running our domestic prisons with the highest standards of moral integrity.

Unfortunately, their claims do not stand up under close scrutiny. According to insider accounts, national experts, lawyers, and numerous recent investigations, prison conditions in this country are little better than at Abu Ghraib. Prisoners are regularly beaten, both by guards and other inmates, in crowded wards. Sexual predators, both guards and inmates, are given free rein to terrorize other prisoners. Moreover, the health care system is often horrifically inadequate.

None of this is legal. The Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution states:

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

The courts have specifically interpreted the Eighth Amendment to mean that prisoners are entitled to adequate medical care.

Yet the Constitution has fallen by the wayside. According to accounts from inside our federal prisons, inmates regularly are forced to wait for health care. When they do receive care, it is often woefully inadequate. Too often, prison medical centers are not equipped to handle trauma and emergency medicine—and doctors are loath to send anybody outside the prison walls for health care.

The result is substandard health care for a segment of the population that desperately needs help. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its National Prison Project, which fights for the human rights of prisoners, the inmate population tends to suffer from greater levels of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, and infectious diseases, including hepatitis C and AIDS, than the general population. This is in addition to the hardships imposed by prison life itself, where a culture of unchecked violence and physical abuse creates a stream of injured and terrorized inmates.