They were not just run-of-the-mill prisoners. Their health problems, particularly mental illness, were pervasive and hard to ignore. Instead of receiving health care from medical providers and institutions in their communities, scores of Oklahomans – particularly those with mental illnesses – had been incarcerated and were now relying on the criminal justice system to receive care. Continue reading
Our nation’s aging prison population is bringing to the forefront issues of geriatric mental health among inmates. There are no federal guidelines for treating older, frail inmates who may suffer from chronic mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Continue reading
With an increasingly aging prison population, how to care for inmates with chronic illnesses or other infirmities and those at the end of life has become an urgent challenge for federal and state governments, and for inmate and elder rights advocates.
An increasing number of prisoners need wheelchairs, walkers, canes, portable oxygen, and hearing aids. Many are incontinent or forgetful and need assistance to get dressed, go to the bathroom, or bathe, according to the Connecticut Office of Legislative Research. Authorities must balance appropriate care with ballooning health costs, determine who will provide care and pay for it. The situation is squeezing state correctional budgets, health services, safety-net programs and local communities. Continue reading
Is flossing a civil right? Eleven New York prisoners say it is.
“We feel that the Westchester County Department of Corrections is depriving inmates of the use of dental floss, which is causing us cavities,” Santiago Gomez, told a reporter from the local newspaper, The Journal News/LoHud.com in a telephone interview.
“They recognize the importance of it, that you have to floss, in the regulation manual. They clearly state if you don’t floss you’re going to get cavities,” Gomez said. Gomez, 26, is the lead plaintiff in a federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in September in U.S District Court in Manhattan.
Just as out in the free world, without adequate care, dental problems only get worse.
“When you get these cavities, they give you a temporary filling which almost, by three or four weeks, falls out, which requires unnecessary procedures such as more drilling to replace this temporary filling,” Gomez said.
The inmates, who are seeking $500 million in the lawsuit, said their lack of floss is causing them severe pain.
“They also argue that the lack of access to floss is causing them to lose their teeth,” wrote reporter Jorge Fitz-Gibbon. Continue reading
Dementia is a harrowing illness. Mix it with life in prison and you get a truly alarming situation.
Pam Belluck of The New York Times opened our eyes to the issue last week in a sobering piece about aging prisoners with serious memory problems, which are often unrecognized and undiagnosed.
It’s hard to say which is more attention-grabbing in Belluck’s riveting story: the greying prisoners with dementia who bang their heads against walls, urinate on floors, strike out in agitation, and shake with paranoia, or the convicted killers who tend to them after beating, stabbing or shooting relatives, friends or strangers.
Belluck sets the scene by discussing longer sentences that are causing more inmates to age in place behind bars. An estimated 125,000 prisoners are 55 and older, she notes, and these inmates are “more prone to dementia” because of violence, head injuries, substance abuse, limited education, depression, and others forms of poor health.
Overcrowded, under-staffed prisons are “desperately unprepared to handle” demented inmates, who typically need extra oversight, additional medical care, and often protection from other “predatory prisoners,” Belluck observes.
So, some facilities are enlisting younger inmates to help older inmates with memory problems. Belluck sets her story at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, where the helpers, called Gold Coats, get $50 a month for their efforts.
There, she discovers details that make this story stand out:
“When a prisoner tried stealing a patient’s dessert, Mr. Montgomery, one of the Gold Coats, snarled, ‘You got to give him his cookie back.’
“‘Who are you, the PO-lice?’ the inmate barked. Mr. Montgomery retorted, ‘Yes, I’m the PO-lice!'”
There are unexpected benefits for some of the helpers, who do everything from filing older inmates’ fingernails to changing diapers. Shawn Henderson, a convicted double murderer, was finally paroled after serving as a Gold Coat, and claims he learned an important lesson from the work.
“Doing a job where ‘you get spit on, feces thrown on you, urine on you, you get cursed out’ helped teach him to cope outside prison, said Mr. Henderson, 46. ‘Now when I come into an encounter like that on the street, I can be a lot more compassionate.'”
But Belluck doesn’t pretend all is for the best. The world she describes is a tragic one, where even prisoners who appear helpful have horrific, violence-filled pasts.
There’s a sense of ghosts moving through this story: the deceased but still remembered victims of terrible crimes that sent men here, and shadows that move fleetingly through demented prisoners’ minds, evoking a time that once was but is no longer. Belluck writes:
“One 73-year-old inmate stands by a gate most mornings, waiting for his long-dead mother to pick him up. Sometimes he refuses to show, afraid of missing her.” Another prisoner, 71, pines for his wife, not realizing that his crime had been “murdering the woman he was tearful about,” according to a statement from a psychiatrist.
This story is well worth examining closely because of its unflinching approach, its depth of perspective, its unsentimental humanity, and its willingness to explore uncomfortable realities associated with aging under extremely difficult circumstances.
Using state records, Jack Dolan of the Los Angeles Times found that one of the most highly paid state employees in California is a doctor who has not been allowed to treat patients in six years.
Dr. Jeffrey Rohlfing is a prison surgeon who has a history that includes a psychiatric crisis, revocation of his clinical privileges after a patient died and allegations of substandard care that led to his being fired.
While appealing his termination, he has “been relegated to reviewing paper medical histories, what prison doctors call ‘mailroom’ duty.”
Last year, Rohlfing made $777,423 – that’s his base pay of $235,740 plus back pay for two years when he didn’t work while he successfully appealed his termination.
Rohlfing isn’t the only doctor in California’s cash-strapped prisons earning big money to shuffle paper. Dozens have been relegated to the chore in recent years, according to Kincaid, who said it’s the standard assignment given to physicians when questions arise about their clinical ability. Some eventually return to treating patients, some quit and others are ultimately fired, she added.
Dolan writes that California’s prison system has a history of employing doctors with problems. In 2006, judges said that contributed to the “fact that a prisoner died ‘needlessly’ every six to seven days in a state lockup.”
- Tip sheet: Covering health care in jails