Monday, December 8, 2008

Inmates deserve better health care

We're all struggling for a better health care system (or any actual system, for that matter) in this country. To most folks, it seems strange that in a place as prosperous as America so many of its citizens lack even the most basic coverage.

So it may be difficult for some to find the time or the will to think about what things are like for those citizens who have landed in prison. Regardless of what they've done, though, these are human beings and therefor deserving of at least basic medical care.

Sadly, however, a combination of negligence and thinly-stretched resources have made for a pretty terrible situation for many inmates of Wisconsin's prison system.

Just two days ago, Bill Lueders at Isthmus reported on a call he'd received from the mother of an inmate being held in prison in La Crosse. She was desperate to get better medical care for her son, Robert Hawkins Jr., who was suffering from "severe stomach problems, high blood pressure, a chronic cough, and blood in his vomit and excrement" but was not getting proper medical attention from prison staff or doctors.

Lueders, being associated with a Madison publication, referred the stricken mother to the La Crosse Tribune, which did end up running a story about the issue. By that time, however, Hawkins had died. It had been two months since he'd first been incarcerated and had been exhibiting symptoms. Two months before prison staff saw fit to have him hospitalized.

And there are more examples of this sort of terrible scenario playing out in our prison system.

Curtis Heino was incarcerated at the Outagamie County Jail when he started to have breathing problems. His wife called to complain that whenever he'd gotten like that in the past, he'd come down with pneumonia. The jail's nurse brushed it all off:
"Nothing big going on with that guy at all," registered nurse Frank Koehler reassured the jail sergeant. "He's got the creeping crud like everybody else that's working in the jail has got. … He’ll survive."

Nineteen hours later, on Jan. 13, the 5-foot-8 Heino was found on the floor of his cell surrounded by bloody tissues and towels, according to jail officer reports obtained by The Post-Crescent through the state’s Public Records Law.
Still another incident involved a female inmate at the Taycheeda Correctional Institution.
Michelle Greer, 29, died within hours of pleading repeatedly with corrections officers for help with an acute asthma attack Feb. 2, 2000. She collapsed on the floor of a dining hall, where she died gasping for breath, still clutching her inhaler. She had told corrections officers multiple times that the inhaler was not helping her condition. Corrections officers had contacted Taycheedah health services twice on her behalf and were told by nurses that the situation was not an emergency because Greer could still talk.
And there are more stories - too many to list here. What's going on in our prisons may just be a reflection of a greater problem being faced by the nation. Our supposed health care system is in shambles, run by profit-driven institutions, unevenly distributed, and prohibitively expensive.

As far as I can tell, there are two big things at issue here: 1) Our prison systems are overcrowded, understaffed, and underfunded, and 2) Our health care system is bloated and failing. The combination, for many, is lethal.

It doesn't have to be.

Pushing aside any arguments that prisoners don't deserve good medical treatment simply because they're prisoners (because that's just fucking wrong), we need to focus on fixing several problems. The United States has the highest number and percentage rate of incarceration in the world. That's one in 100 adults behind bars (more than 2.3 million), at a cost of nearly $50 billion a year for state governments and $5 billion more for the federal government. This is not an area where we should take pride in beating even countries like China.

Between the massive economic downturn and these sorts of numbers, it's no wonder that many prisons find themselves strapped for adequate cash and staffing, something that too often leads to the kinds of deadly scenarios described above.

Measures like killing the so-called War on Drugs, mandatory minumum sentancing laws, and other wasteful and/or discriminatory rules would held to ease the number of people behind bars. So would more spending on things like public education (argue all you like, people are less likely to turn to a life of crime if provided with better opportunities early on in life).

But some of this comes down to negligence, too, and we need to hold the responsible parties accountable for these peoples' deaths. We also need to make sure better training is provided for jail staff, so that the often clear-as-day warning signs don't go unheeded.

The most important thing is that these are almost all avoidable deaths, as we should be doing what we can to see that they are, in fact, avoided. No more phone calls from weeping mothers, please.

(photo by Gìpics on Flickr)


Rachel said...

Excellent post; well said and an issue that not many people are aware of.

Emily said...

Thanks Rachel, I appreciate that.

Anonymous said...

well here's another to glorify! Shesler vs Carlson et al, filed 1/15/2009. Mr Shesler(cough) is an over weight, drug using sue happy repeat offender. While there are many that are suffering in the system, the ones that put themselves in the condition they are in medically, get no sympathy!

The Lost Albatross