While he was on the run, prison escapee David Sweat was one dangerous and terrifying individual. But once he was captured - having been shot twice in the back – law enforcement went to great lengths to save his life. He was transported to a level-one trauma center that is home to some of the most innovative treatments and best medical staff in the country. The care he received included “emergency, trauma, intensive care, radiology and vascular surgery specialists.”
For obvious reasons, the government did not want Mr. Sweat to die. The same cannot be said for the rest of this nation’s prison population, at least if the quality of this country’s prison health care system is any guide.
Over the past 30 years, in an effort to cut the costs associated with ballooning prison populations and aging inmates, correctional facilities have begun to cut care to the point of “cruel and unusual punishment.” Often the problem is connected to the increasing privatization of prisons or the outsourcing of prison health care services to profiteering private corporations. Report after report documents recent health care horror stories.
Just yesterday, a report from the New York State Commission of Correction was obtained and released by The Journal News. The report documents horrific medical care provided by New York Correct Care Solutions Inc., a for-profit corporation contracted to provide inmate healthcare for Westchester County Jail Facilities, that led to the January death of inmate Rashad McNulty. The report found,
[Mr. McNulty's] complaints of chest pains were mismanaged by nursing staff from New York Correct Care Solutions Inc... The physician, also employed by NYCCS Inc., made a hazardous presumptive diagnosis of abdominal distress on McNulty, a patient presenting the accepted symptoms of acute coronary syndrome, without the benefit of actually examining McNulty or performing the requisite diagnostic tests…. Nursing staff failed to take appropriate action and abandoned McNulty by placing him back in his cell and not returning him to the medical clinic or having him emergently transported to a hospital. [He was later] found unresponsive and in cardiac arrest. Had McNulty been given appropriate emergency medical care and sent to a hospital in a timely manner, his death may have been prevented.
The Commission recommended that the State Department of Educations's Office of Professional Conduct investigate the nurses involved in the incident and urged NYCCS to revamp its emergency sick call procedures, but made no calls to discontinue the private prison company's contract.
Incidents of terrible, and sometimes deadly, prison healthcare a common throughout the nation. In one case, for example, a pregnant inmate in jail for possessing drugs to sell, under the care of private company Wexford, was forced to have a cesarean delivery, and quickly moved back to her cell where her wound re-opened.
[S]he alerted guards, but they refused to let her see a doctor, leaving her on the prison yard with a gaping wound for two weeks. When she finally saw medical staff, she said they told her that she was lucky to be alive. They treated her with a wound vacuum. Then, she said, they employed an antiquated medical treatment, used before the advent of antibiotics…. Sugar.
A 24 year-old Florida man, in jail for a misdemeanor, alerted healthcare workers after he felt “his intestines escaping from his rectum.” Only after fellow inmates begged staff to give him medical attention did a nurse, employed by the private health care company, “obtain some K-Y Jelly, and pushed the intestines back in.” Hours later, at a local hospital, doctors found an abscess compressing his spine.
Other stories document prisoners dying because of improper withholding of medication or life saving treatments. But the problem is not isolated to a handful of particularly egregious cases. According to the Center for Media and Democracy,
[A]n investigation…reveal[ed] that Florida inmates have been dying in droves since the state privatized prison health care. In January 2014, three months after the privatization was fully implemented, the number of inmates who died "shot to a 10-year high."... The investigation also found that the number of referrals for outside hospital care is down by 47 percent compared to 2012.
More recently, a report, compiled by a team of experts in the wake of a recent class action lawsuit, highlights some of the worst problems facing privately-run prison healthcare systems in Illinois. As the Chicago Sun Times reported,
The 405-page study … found “significant lapses in care” in an “unacceptably high” 60 % of the cases in which prisoners died behind bars in 2013 and the first half of 2014, not counting those who died of violent causes.
New York City recently fired Corizon, the largest provider of private prison health care in the country:
[T]he city’s Department of Investigation reported that the company had hired doctors and mental health workers with disciplinary problems and criminal convictions, including for murder and kidnapping. It also found that missteps by Corizon employees may have contributed to at least two recent inmate deaths [at Rikers Island Jail].
It is no wonder why Corizon Correctional Healthcare and Wexford Health Sources, the two largest private prison healthcare providers, have been collectively sued over 1,750 times over the past 5 years for medical malpractice. (These are conservative estimates because these companies have refused to comply with state requests for the information, claiming that the lawsuits against them are “trade secrets.”)
But it’s not so easy for an inmate to sue. Some prisoners, like those housed in privately run federal facilities, lose their right to bring constitutional claims. In other cases, prisoners are subject to special procedural hurdles, limits on types of damages they can recover, and other restrictions imposed by state law. And it’s very difficult to inmates to find competent attorneys to help them or juries who will listen. The result is a severe lack of accountability for the entire prison health care system.
The Center for Justice & Democracy has a brand new FAQ explaining some of these issues. Perhaps David Sweat might want copy. Looks like he’s going to have a lot of time on his hands.