Crisis in Correctional Care: The Series Begins

Apr 1, 2014

There are about 30,000 Virginians in state prisons, and Virginia spends more than $25,000 a year to house each of them, making the Department of Corrections the most expensive agency in Richmond, with a billion dollar annual budget. It spends $160 million on healthcare, but critics say that care is inadequate, and some inmates could be dying for lack of medical attention. 

Another 30,000 people are locked up in city or county jails, and as we hear in this series, their care is also questionable.

When Bobby Messick was 17, he got his girlfriend pregnant.  To help with her medical bills, he says, he stole money from his employer - the local Dairy Queen.  When he got caught, a judge sentenced him to probation, but Messick missed several drug tests after his son was born, and the judge ordered him locked up in the Newport News city jail.  Unable to bring medication for his diabetes, Messick feared that ten-day sentence could cost his life:

“They have to get approval from the doctor for them to be able to give you the insulin that you need. I was sitting there for about five hours in booking, because they only had one person working, and my blood sugar went up to 550.  I tried saying something to them, but their excuse is it’s the best they can do.”  

When he was in high school, Messick checked his blood sugar 4 or 5 times a day and gave himself as many as seven shots to keep his blood sugar in a normal range.  A reading of 500 might prompt a trip to the hospital, but now Bobby had to wait until the jail’s nurse gave him a dose of insulin.  Over the next few days, he worried constantly, unsure if he would get more insulin in time.

“Deputies would walk by, and I’d try to get their attention, and they would just ignore you, or like they’d say, “What do you need?” and I’d say, “I need my insulin,” and they’d be like, “Okay, I’ll let the nurse know.”  An hour later, nothing had happened, so I’d ask another deputy, and he’d be like, “Okay, I’ll let the nurse know.”

Frustrated and afraid, he phoned his mother, who complained and was told the jail was not going to coddle her son - that the nurse, who worked for a private contractor called Conmed, was following protocol.  

Conmed also cares for patients at the Virginia Beach jail, where it’s been sued by families of two former inmates for wrongful deaths.  One prisoner was a 54-year-old diabetic with hypertension, sentenced to ten days for driving on a suspended license.  The suit alleged he got insulin but no blood pressure medication for four days.

At the state level, about half of all prisoners get care from private companies , and inmates file more than 2,000 grievances a year. We asked Virginia’s Department of Corrections to talk about that, but officials refused.

On the other hand, Abigail Turner was happy to talk. She’s an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, suing the Fluvanna Correctional Center and its medical providers. The suit claims inadequate care has caused prisoners’ health to deteriorate. Jeanna Wright, for example, complained about intense abdominal pain and rectal bleeding for a full year before getting a thorough exam.

“She was finally referred to the University of Virginia.  There she was diagnosed with stage four abdominal cancer, and she died in April of 2012.”

Turner believes at least ten deaths could have been prevented at Fluvanna over the last 3 or 4 years if medical care had been adequate. Ten years ago, Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report on prison healthcare called Accountable to No One.  It complained of deliberate neglect, unnecessary deaths, botched surgeries and policies that place cost above the health of patients.  That report went to every state legislator.  Since then, says ACLU attorney Hope Amezquita, nothing has changed. “It seems to have gotten worse! We don’t know a lot, and what we do know is not good.”

In future reports, we’ll ask why, but before we sign off, an update on Bobby Messick.  After getting more than a dozen calls from relatives and reporters, the Newport News Jail released him early.  He’s back on a careful medical regimen, working as a dj and spending time with his son.