Inmates in Wyoming’s jails and prisons frequently complain that they don’t receive adequate medical care. That might not seem like a huge problem, but the Eight Amendment of the Constitution requires that if prison staff know an inmate has a serious medical need, they have to treat it.
Civil rights groups are worried that serious cases are being ignored. But the Wyoming Department of Corrections says inmates just don’t have a realistic idea of how they should be treated. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.
WILLOW BELDEN: One of the inmates at the prison in Rawlins is a man who was convicted of assisting in a murder 25 years ago. Recently, he was diagnosed with diabetes. The prison promised to put him on a special diet. But his mother says that didn’t happen.
MOTHER: When it comes mealtimes, he’s served the same thing that the other people get in the cafeteria.
BELDEN: The mother asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions against her son. But she says his blood sugar levels are high, and she’s worried that his condition will get worse if he doesn’t get the right foods. She says she’s contacted the prison on numerous occasions, but nothing has changed.
MOTHER: I told him – I said, ‘That’s my kid,’ and I said, ‘I know where he’s at and it’s a bad situation.’ But he’s still human, and so is all the others. And something’s got to be done. And they just don’t want to hear from you.
JENNIFER HORVATH: This is an obvious problem. Diabetes is – I’m not going to say it’s easy to manage, but it can be managed.
BELDEN: That’s Jennifer Horvath, an attorney with the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She says situations like this are common. Each year, the ACLU gets thousands of complaints from inmates in Wyoming, and medical issues top the list. Some prisoners say they’re not getting adequate food and medication for chronic diseases. Some complain that referrals to specialists are ignored. Others tell stories about being misdiagnosed.
HORVATH: For example, someone will have an injury and complain that they think their wrist is broken or leg is broken. And instead of getting an X-ray, there’s a delay. And then by the time the X-ray is done, or the break or fracture is diagnosed, it may be late to do the care.
BELDEN: Horvath says that kind of treatment is just plain wrong.
HORVATH: We punish people by taking away their liberty; we don’t punish people by taking away their health. And how we treat people in a weak position ultimately reflects what kind of society we are.
BELDEN: But Department of Corrections Director Bob Lampert says healthcare in the prisons is actually very good.
LAMPERT: I think it’s an excellent level of care. … It’s at least equivalent to what a patient may receive in the community. … And actually our results are better than what the community has seen in regards to Medicare, Medicaid treatment for chronic conditions. Our results are much better.
BELDEN: In an email, a spokeswoman for Corizon, the company that provides the medical care in Wyoming’s correctional facilities, said the company is “committed to providing evidence-based, quality care to our patients.” Later in the email, she says that they “represent the best use of taxpayer dollars for correctional healthcare.”
External audits support that statement. Lampert says Wyoming consistently receives good marks for its correctional medical care. He says the reason inmates are often dissatisfied is that they don’t have a clear picture of what good healthcare should entail.
LAMPERT: Frankly, a large percentage of our population is drug seeking. … And their preference would be, ‘Give me a strong pill; give me a narcotic to control this.’ And that’s not the approach that we take.
BELDEN: Lampert says the approach that Wyoming’s correctional facilities take is conservative. For example, if an inmate complains of an orthopedic problem, they’ll often try physical therapy before doing surgery. And they emphasize good diet and exercise, rather than just medications. He says that’s not cutting corners; it’s just sensible healthcare.
LAMPERT: But again, it takes the inmate’s participation and understanding that they’re a partner in the effort.
BELDEN: Lawsuits prisoners have filed against the Department of Corrections and Corizon paint a different picture. The suits contend that care is inadequate. One inmate alleges that it can take months to see a doctor, and that he was denied treatment for debilitating pain. He writes that “in most cases you are just ignored altogether and are told to ‘suck it up and deal with it.’” Another inmate suffering from cancer alleges that medical staff told him they would “experiment with the treatment types that are suppose [sic] to kill you.”
Corizon has contracts at hundreds of jails and prisons nationwide, and there have been a slew of lawsuits against the company in other states, too. But Lampert says none of the cases in Wyoming have resulted in convictions.
LAMPERT: So we’ve actually reduced the number of suits filed, and haven’t had any successful medical lawsuits.
BELDEN: Lampert says that tells him they’re a good job. But Jennifer Horvath with the ACLU says there could be another explanation.
HORVATH: The lawsuits are very hard to prove, and they’re very expensive, and so there’s a disincentive for prisoners to pursue those cases.
BELDEN: Horvath says the complaints they receive fly in the face of the good audits. She says some former inmates are still experiencing major health problems, long after they’re released, because they didn’t get appropriate treatment in jail. And she says that needs to stop happening. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.