[Pnews] Prisons - Is the American Health Profession Ignoring a Human Rights Issue Hiding in Plain Sight

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Feb 2 14:51:45 EST 2014

  Is the American Health Profession Ignoring a Human Rights Issue Hiding
  in Plain Sight

Posted: January 30, 2014

*James Ridgeway, from **Solitary Watch* <http://solitarywatch.com/>*, 
asks are the health needs of American prisoners being neglected.*

There are 2.3 million people in US prisons in conditions that are often 
inhumane and at worst life threatening. An estimated 80,000 of US 
prisoners are locked up in solitary confinement, which means in a 6 ft x 
9 ft cell containing little more than a bunk bed, toilet, sink, shelf, 
and unmovable stool. Prisoners in solitary confinement are let out in 
leg irons, handcuffs and belly chains for 'exercise' two or three times 
a week in dog kennel-type runs. Bathing is sporadic and the food often 
miserable and insufficient. One third of prisoners in solitary 
confinement are thought to be mentally ill and half are placed in 
solitary for nonviolent crimes <http://solitarywatch.com/facts/faq/>.

Recently, the press has begun suggesting the situation in US prisons 
might be improving slightly. In part, this may be due to reforms pushed 
by the American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi that forced 
reduction in numbers of men held in solitary and because of the hunger 
strikes in California which have brought small reforms there. Under 
steady pressure from citizen groups, Maine has reduced the numbers of 
men in solitary. Furthermore, reforms proposed by US Attorney General 
Eric Holder aim to reduce overall crowding in prisons by releasing the 
old and sick, and by loosening the hitherto mandatory drug laws. These 
laws have sent untold thousands into prisons on lengthy sentences for 
minor drug offenses 

As states cut costs, there is some pressure to shut down certain 
prisons, but the real story is business as usual. Cost cutting may 
shutdown prisons but also means that corrections officials double cell 
the inmates, that is, put two people in already cramped cells. 
  Individuals serving sentences in solitary confinement live under these 
cramped conditions, not for weeks or months, but for years and decades. 
Two men have been in solitary at Louisiana's Angola prison for 41 years. 
I write to a man in New York State who has been in solitary for 26 
years. In Colorado a man in solitary confinement has not seen the sun in 
10 years.

The most striking aspect of this scene is the lack of decent medical 
care for prisoners in the US whether in solitary confinement or in the 
general prison population. Over the last two years I have corresponded 
with prisoners who have been waiting for years to have dental work, and 
end up pulling their own teeth. Women line up at 4 am in Alabama to 
receive aspirin. People with hearing impairments are thrown into 
solitary confinement because, unable to hear, they cannot respond to the 
orders of officers. According to one doctor in the south, a man with an 
ear ache was given drops for months but finally became so ill he was 
examined at a local hospital outside of prison and was diagnosed with 
terminal brain cancer.

I reported on a case of a woman in prison for a $11 non violent robbery 
who had received two consecutive life sentences 
She was suffering from end stage renal disease. The subcontractor which 
provided health care to Mississippi prisons brought in a dialysis 
machine which broke down during treatment. Her condition eventually 
deteriorated and she was sent to a city hospital where the doctor warned 
the prison she would die if taken back. The prison put her back in the 
cell anyway. Eventually after pressure from the National Association for 
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), this woman and her sister, 
who was also in prison, were released by the governor on grounds that 
the healthy sister gives a kidney to her sister.

Herman Wallace, 71, was shut up in solitary in Louisiana for 41 years. 
Five years ago he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Last year he 
complained of stomach cramps and weakness. He was seen by a prison 
doctor who said he had a stomach fungus and administered an antibiotic. 
A short time later, Wallace, having lost 50 pounds, still living in his 
tiny cell where the temperature was 96 degrees (35.6^o C), became so 
sick he was taken to a hospital outside the prison where he was 
diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. His friends and lawyers requested 
that the state grant him compassionate release and allow the man to 
spend his final days with family and friends.  And, indeed, shortly 
before Wallace's death, a federal judge in Louisiana, disregarding the 
state's opposition, set him free. Wallace spent two days as a free man 
before he succumbed to the cancer.

These are not isolated cases. Every day I receive letters from people in 
US prisons many of them are locked in solitary confinement; fifty 
letters in a week. Today a man being charged money for medications goes 
without because he has no money to buy them. Another man with kidney and 
bladder ailments fears to go to lunch in case he infuriates other 
inmates by 'leaking' on a chair. A man says he hasn't slept for days 
because of the constantly burning neon lights. Another says that he only 
catches a few minutes sleep when people around him have stopped 
screaming. Others stifle at the smell of excrement smeared on the walls. 
A young man writes he is cutting into his arm, but please don't stress 
his mom by telling her. He hopes to kill himself by tomorrow night.

I have raised the question with several doctors as to why the US medical 
profession -- doctors, nurses mental health professionals, etc -- show 
little interest in this enormous human rights issue on their doorstep, 
one directly affecting public health, and one which is even recognized 
and studied as an epidemic. To be sure there are medical practitioners 
who have plunged into this morass, but they are few and far between. And 
there are medical bodies, including Physicians for Human Rights 
<http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/> and the American Psychological 
Association, which decry solitary. Physicians for Human Rights calls for 
independent evaluations and reform of health care policies. Much of this 
work is couched in the language of scholarly discourse, and often points 
to promising actions in the prison business. Sitting here, reading these 
letters, these academic statements seem utterly disconnected with what 
is going on.

Help is needed now, not only in the academic arena. As a layperson it 
seems to me unconscionable for the medical profession to turn its back 
on what has become a serious, large scale human rights issue; one that 
can be alleviated, at least to some extent, by medical professionals 
employing up to date technology, not, as reported above, broken down 
dialysis machines.

At the same time I meet doctors who long ago worked in Africa in the 
Peace Corps, still returning to places like Ethiopia each year to help 
provide medical care. American doctors fly into Haiti to spend 
exhausting weeks tending to desperately poor people. But these foul 
prisons in their own backyards are ignored. Doctors tell me it is too 
complicated dealing with prisons and that even if they should show 
interest the wardens will turn them away at the gates.

Why can't doctors fight? Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without 
Borders (MSF) seems to get into all sorts of difficult places amidst 
mass starvations, horrid natural disasters, braving fire in combat 
areas. When I phoned to ask MSF if they could do anything in US prisons, 
the answer was a bureaucratic no -- can't do business in the US. The 
International Red Cross is a great force for the good, and has authority 
to visit US prisons, but, according to a representative I spoke with, 
can't reveal which prisons it enters. The UN Rapporteur on torture 
travels around the world visiting dreadful places, but when it comes to 
the US, he must go through the bureaucratic labyrinth of first securing 
permission from the US mission to the UN, which denies we torture, then 
the state department, which says we don't torture. The US constitution 
and subsequent laws ban torture. The president has reiterated these 
bans. The Rapporteur can be turned away by wardens of state prisons 
where most of the prison population dwells. The press is routinely 
denied entrance to solitary sections of US prisons.

Prisons in the United States have become our true `Black Sites' -- our 
new madhouses. They are warehouses for the poor and the sick. Located 
all over the country, they are hiding in plain sight.

*James Ridgeway is a journalist in Washington. He worked for years at 
the /Village Voice/ in New York, then for /Mother Jones /magazine. He 
has written 16 books, made documentary films, and is founder and 
co-editor of **Solitary Watch* <http://solitarywatch.com/>*, a web site 
that tracks solitary in the US. *

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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