The results were a broad and damning indictment of nearly every single aspect of the prison’s health care operation. Doctors’ orders were ignored. Prescriptions were withheld. Chronic conditions were never diagnosed, or if they were, they were never treated. Acute care was nonexistent. Prisoners were denied outside medical care. Suicidal prisoners who literally begged for help were dismissed by guards only to kill themselves within hours.
“We find that persons confined suffer harm or the risk of serious harm from deficiencies in the facility’s provision of medical and mental health care, suicide prevention, protection of inmates from harm, fire safety, and sanitation,” the investigators concluded. “In addition, the facility fails to provide inmates sufficient access to the courts and opportunity to seek redress of grievances.”8
This flawed system was a clear violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights, according to the investigation. And the blame lay squarely on Physicians Network Associates, a private company that had been contracted to deliver health care services to the prison.
The investigation provides a chilling glimpse into the world of modern prisons. According to the report, only 37% of prisoners received a full health screening. Among that minority, prisoners who were identified with “serious medical needs” were not referred for health care services. Amazingly, not a single prisoner was referred to health services for a chronic health condition.8
Finally, as with Robert Treadway at Yazoo City, the investigation found that physicians did not send prisoners for outside care quickly enough. And just as bad, outside doctors’ orders were routinely ignored once inmates were back in their cells.
The report called for a sweeping, 53-point overhaul in the way the prison was operated. The attorney general’s office threatened to file a lawsuit if the conditions were not met in 49 days.8
Increasingly, lawsuits are the only way for prisoners to assert the basic human rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. So far, successful class-action lawsuits alleging medical neglect have been filed in California, Michigan, and Utah. Groups in other states are preparing to file. Even in Yazoo City, a local attorney is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of a prisoner.
Rather than forcing change, however, these lawsuits have had the opposite effect. Instead of providing the rights that decency and the Constitution demand, the federal government passed the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act. This legislation made it harder for federal courts to guarantee constitutional conditions in federal prisons. According to the ACLU, now “many states are following the
federal government’s example and enacting laws that create similar obstacles for prisoners in the state court system.”
If the prisoners cannot protect themselves, and the public refuses to be shocked by the grim statistics and images pouring from America’s prisons, there can be only one end to this story: a national disaster.
One possible scenario is depressingly easy to imagine. Under the current system, millions of people will continue to be convicted for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses. They will be given long sentences in prisons that are literally bursting at the cell doors. They will be subjected to crowded conditions, sexual and criminal predators, and infection with the deadly diseases that run rampant through our prisons. Then, with inadequate medical care, they will be released onto our streets, sick and corrupted.
Unless something is done, our prisons will continue act as incubators of violence and disease, and before long, we will all pay a price for our neglect.