Sunday February 25, 2001 

Neglect in our prisons imperils us all
By B. Cayenne Bird
Not many people caught the relationship last month in Sacramento between the actions of a parolee with mental disorders and a hearing held about medical neglect by Sen. Richard Polanco of Los Angeles.

In the most tragic terms, they were a perfect coincidence.

Hundreds of families of prisoners and other concerned citizens attended the Jan. 17 hearing called by the chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Prison Construction and Operations to probe three of the eight recent deaths at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla.

Three women - Pamela Coffey, 46, Stephanie Hardie, 33, and Eva Vallario, 33 - died at the prison within 13 days in December. Questions surrounding delays and deficiencies in medical treatment for each of them brought to a head a steady flow of complaints by prisoners and their families about mental and physical health care in all California prisons.

There were 39 deaths from Nov. 1 to Dec. 12, which officials apparently consider business as usual.

At about 9:30 p.m. Jan. 16, as if too anxious to wait for the next morning's hearing to tell his story, big-rig driver Mike Bowers, blaring his horn and driving at speeds of up to 70 mph, crashed the truck he was driving into the south side of the state Capitol. The explosion killed him instantly, sent fire and smoke into the building, and put the event on the front page of Wednesday morning's newspapers.

Mr. Bowers had been in and out of state prisons and mental institutions since 1983 when first convicted of misdemeanor petty theft. His prison experience included two one-year stints in solitary confinement and four years at Atascadero and Patton state mental hospitals. His family believes that, rather than helping him, state prison and mental health systems in large part induced his condition.

Isolation is not the preferred treatment for schizophrenia, according to former prison psychologist Dr. Patricia Overton, who quit her job over the atrocities she witnessed in the system.

Upstairs, on the morning after the crash and above the charred truck, Sen. Polanco convened his hearing about prison medical care. Representatives of the California Department of Corrections fielded hard questions about the long response time to urgent calls for help, the lack of medical equipment, and the conflicting role played by medical technical assistants, prison guards who with some training are supposed to act as nurses.

A full 45 minutes was spent talking about how records are kept by doctors on 3-by-5-inch cards with no information technology in place.

Officials had asked for defibrillators, the shock paddle device key to saving lives. Almost every airplane has one for emergencies. Requests for other personnel and equipment were made, but Gov. Gray Davis routinely vetoes most requests made to remedy the treatment of prisoners. He prefers instead to cost the taxpayers millions of dollars in lawsuit payouts, which are deeply hidden in several budgets.

It would make much more sense to take those millions in lawsuit payouts and put them into proper treatment in the first place.

An autopsy stated that Pamela Coffey, convicted of possession of a controlled substance for sale, died of heart complications. Two hours before she collapsed, concerned cellmates summoned an MTA, who briefly examined her and then left. In a signed declaration, one of her cellmates described her on the night before she died as "so bloated she appeared to be nine months pregnant." Surely such a visual symptom indicated a need for treatment.

Eva Vallario's mother, Donna Christopher, asked how it can be appropriate for prison guards to administer health care. "When you look at someone as a prisoner," she said, "you disregard 90 percent of what they say as untrue."

According to prison officials, Ms. Vallario, who had suffered from asthma since childhood, collapsed after taking three puffs from her inhaler.

The cause of Stephanie Hardie's death is, to date, unexplained. From the instant her cellmates began screaming for help on her behalf, until guards carried her out to a non-medically equipped van, nearly 30 minutes elapsed.

Her conviction, for writing bad checks on her own account, effectively drew for her a death sentence.

If these were only three isolated cases, the Department of Corrections might be in a better position to defend its custodianship. However, my four-drawer filing cabinet overflows into several boxes with appeals for help. Everything ranging from a possibly cancerous lump on a testicle, to open wounds weeping with infrequent changing of the dressings, to psychological intimidation and torment and refusal to diagnose or treat the worst of diseases.

During the public-comment portion of the January hearing, Dr. Overton described her work for prisons in 1997. She found that the typical response to both emergency and routine medical problems was to file a request to see the doctor. The requests normally took two weeks to be processed.

At one time she noticed an inmate housed on the mental health yard, but not prescribed the usual psychotropic medication. Inquiry revealed that he had suffered a stroke and was unable to move. His cellmate had been bathing, feeding and holding up his head to administer some medication. It took another week and a second report by Dr. Overton before a physician saw him.

Dr. John Stanly, a medical adviser to our advocacy group, gave a specific example of an inmate who convulsed for 55 minutes before an ambulance arrived and proper emergency treatment was administered. He spoke of delays ranging from one to two hours, a dangerous situation with the number of riots and emergencies prevalent in prisons.

Dr. Stanly said that the standard of medical care for inmates was below that of homeless people, but state statute demands a standard of regular community care.

Our group has reported medical neglect and abuse on a daily basis for nearly three years. In 1999, Sen. John Burton appointed a legislative representative to handle our members' complaints from all 33 California prisons. We are also assisted by an ombudsman from the Department of Corrections.

The problems of 18,000 mentally ill people being double-celled with healthier inmates in cages the size of a bathroom often end up in injury or death. No one takes responsibility for systemic dysfunction.

Compassionate release is often in order for inmates with long term illnesses.

Prisons will almost never issue pain relievers. For this and other reasons, it is nothing short of torture to keep people in prison away from their families when they are dying. What benefit could this possibly provide to the public safety?

Providing physical and mental health care to 160,000 inmates statewide may be challenging, but if we as a society are going to assume authority over these individuals' lives, we must also assume responsibility for their humane treatment.

Most inmates, just like truck driver Mike Bowers before his death, will be back among us after completing their terms. From a moral or an economic or a public safety point of view, what possible advantage can there be in releasing them in worse physical and mental condition than when they were convicted?

My closing statement before the legislative subcommittee was that the state of California has no right to put people in prison if they can't take care of them. Assemblyman Carl Washington, who sits on the Public Safety Committee, heartily agreed. There are simply too many people in prison and for the good of the public safety, we need to release non-violent prisoners immediately and put the mentally ill in real hospitals where they get treatment not punishment.

With these practices of medical neglect, the state is endangering everyone. None of this inhumanity is a solution to crime.

The author is director of United for No Injustice, Oppression or Neglect, a prisoners rights group based in Sacramento. She has written previously on prison issues for The Reporter opinion pages.

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