The Reporter

A public health crisis
Media must be allowed to report on abuses in prisons
By B. Cayenne Bird

Sunday, September 05, 2004 - The recent death of Anthony Shumake, a California State Prison at Solano County inmate, is but another incidence of death which may have been the result of medical neglect.

I have reports of possible negligence that resulted in at least two more deaths at the California Medical Facility and CSP-Solano, both in Vacaville, bringing the total to three since April.

As someone who has been taking complaints from inmates and their families from 33 prisons and most of the jails since 1998, I believe that death due to neglect is not unusual. I believe the media is essentially banned from state prisons as part of a coverup of medical neglect and abuses to inmates that routinely make them much sicker than before they were incarcerated. It is unacceptable that the media is banned from taxpayer-financed institutions, including prisons, jails and juvenile halls when the lawsuit payouts are so high.

Since I wrote an article decrying medical neglect ("Building better prisons: State institutions could use some major changes," Forum, The Reporter, Oct. 22, 2000), we as taxpayers have paid out hundreds of millions more of our tax dollars due to mismanagement. Conditions in prisons have worsened. Advocates, inmates and their families have no place to go for help even in potentially fatal emergencies. We're spending billions on a failed prison and jail system that is breaking the bodies and spirits of men, women and children. We call it "corrections," but nobody is being corrected. People are simply being destroyed for the rest of their lives.

There are no statistics anywhere showing the inhumane treatment is doing one thing to prevent or deter crime. In fact, it appears that what we are doing is destroying addicts and the mentally ill simply for being sick. Caging people instead of healing them is barbaric and ineffective. Yet legislators put into office by law enforcement unions refuse to put an end to the conveyor belt laws responsible for the overcrowding and resulting inhumane conditions.

Any sentence to prison or jail is a potential death sentence with the rampant abuses and disease epidemics raging out of control there.

And since we are all connected - at least 3 million people are in some way related to a prison inmate - this devastation is affecting everyone. During a Jan. 29 federal congressional hearing, it was reported by the Center for Disease Control that life-threatening diseases were leaking out to the public. The public safety is not being served when inmates are denied basic custodial care such as food, clean water, fresh air, medical, mental health and dental care. Yet this is what has been happening.

Anthony Shumake's death was preventable. The law states that an inmate's medical care should be at the same level as regular community care. But for the sake of making a profit on this slave-labor industry, human services are being denied to inmates on a daily basis. The standards are far below that of regular community care.

The death toll in prisons is high and taxpayers have a right to know the details. Politicians elected by law enforcement labor unions are so callous that you could drop a dead body on almost any desk in the Legislature and they would just work around it. Shocking conditions are considered business as usual and the lawsuit payouts are hidden from journalists, spread across several budgets.

Hospital and ambulance bills aren't getting paid. It is not uncommon for an ambulance to take two or three hours to arrive to the more remote prisons. Even prison visitors have died because the correctional officers usually aren't trained in even the most basic first-aid procedures and there are no doctors on the grounds at night or on the weekends.

Now with West Nile virus in full swing and no insect repellents or screens available for inmates roasting in sweltering cells, the risks of more medical deaths are even greater.

There are too many people in prison. The fiscal and human toll of this callous grinding machine are immeasurable.

The dead bodies have been stacking up now for six years, all of it flying beneath the radar of a banned media. We need to demand the immediate release of all nonviolent inmates for humanity's sake. Prisons might be just a photo-op for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, but he needs to sign Senate Bill 1164 by Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles to allow media access to inmates in our prisons.

The author is director of United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect, or UNION, an advocacy group for inmates and their families.

B. Cayenne Bird  Director
United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect
P.O. Box 340371
Sacramento, Ca. 95834

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