11. Death Behind Bars

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Sources: SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, Title: “Death Behind Bars”; “Infected-and Ignored” Date: February 5, 1997; February 19, 1997 Author: Nina Siegal

SSU Censored Researchers: Renee Hamilton, Carolyn Williams, and Kecia Kaiser
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Barbara Bloom, Ph.D.

A nine-month investigation by the San Francisco Bay Guardian found that California’s prison system routinely denies women access to even minimal medical care. The investigation revealed that in many cases this failure to provide care resulted in death. Examples included breast cancer diagnoses, delayed for years; ignored cardiac cases; and cases of painful post-operative treatment of surgical patients, including poor wound care, where incisions ripped and were left open to infection.

Shumate v. Wilson, the 1995 class action suit brought on behalf of hundreds of women inmates in California, is indicative of the widespread health-care crisis in women’s prisons throughout the state. The suit accuses the California Department of Corrections of violating prisoners’ rights under the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, and Fourteenth Amendments.

This suit charges that women’s prisons are responsible for many instances of poor and grossly negligent treatment, claiming that the prison system consistently fails to provide emergency medical treatment to women in life-threatening situations. It states that inmates with chronic and terminal conditions—such as AIDS, lupus, or multiple sclerosis—are denied continuous care. The suit lists cases in which women inmates have died, suffered permanent disabilities, lost infants at full term, and been left with severe problems due to poor follow-up care. It states that inmates have difficulty getting medication prescriptions refilled, that emergency call buttons at one prison were malfunctioning, and that medical wards are often private cells with no nearby medical assistance. The suit was sponsored by a coalition of nationally renowned legal teams, including the National Prison Project in Washington, DC, the ACLU, and the Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco. The plaintiffs are seeking prison system reform, not money.

The current lawsuit adds to prior complaints concerning medical treatment for prisoners. In the past decade, class action lawsuits filed against the California Department of Corrections have argued that the state fails to provide adequate medical health care, mental health treatment, and disability access. In most cases, courts have found those allegations to be true.

Indicative of the system-wide problems is the lack of care for AIDS and HIV positive patients. There are approximately 10,000 women inmates in California, 1,000 of whom are HIV positive. Although the prison system hired an infectious-disease specialist to check on prisoners with AIDS, women inmates at the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) at Chowchilla—which houses two-thirds of the state’s women inmates—say he only visits the Chowchilla facility once a month.

Dr. Armond Start, associate professor with the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School said, “women in prison have an increased incidence of chronic healthcare problems, and convulsive seizure disorders, because of their exposure to violence. Without proper medical treatment, even basic medical problems can become fatal.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR NINA SIEGAL: “Both [Bay Guardian] stories focused on inadequate health care in state prisons—particularly in the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) and in the Valley State Prison for Women, both in Chowchilla, California—that exacerbated inmates’ problems with chronic and terminal illnesses, and led, in several cases, to unnecessary deaths.

“The problems with the health facilities at these prisons were the subject of a class action lawsuit, Shumate v. Wilson, filed on behalf of hundreds of women prisoners at CCWF and that California Institute for Women in Frontera, California. As a result of this lawsuit, on August 11, 1997, the State and the inmates’ attorneys filed a settlement agreement on the suit which required the California Department of Corrections to give their female inmates adequate medical care. According to the draft agreement, the prisons will be required to provide appropriate screening for contagious diseases, keep medical records private, and expedite the referral process for prisoners in need of physician review. They will also be required to maintain effective emergency equipment.

“Despite the terms of the settlement, however, the problems at the prisons persist. Women are still dying behind bars in California due to lack of adequate attention to chronic, terminal, and emergency medical problems. And just as unfortunately, the mainstream press has failed to pick up on this important story.

“Anyone who wants to get involved should call the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Legal Services for Prisoners with Children at 415/2557036, ext. 313, or the HIV/AIDS in Prison Project of Catholic Charities at 510/834-5656.”