Late last month, Reason released a report exposing the terrible healthcare that many women face during their time in prison. The report, “These Women Received a Death Sentence for Being Sick In Prison,” details three different deaths at a federal women’s prison, all from alleged medical neglect, along with a multitude of other complaints from women resulting from the poor healthcare in prison.
As the report describes:
The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) listed the cause of death in all three cases as “natural causes,” according to public records obtained by Reason. That classification, while technically correct, erases the culpability of the agency. It’s like claiming a man accidentally drowned after you refused to throw him a life preserver.
But the agency doesn’t want to talk about what happened. When asked for more information, the BOP public affairs office said the agency ‘does not disclose the details of an inmate’s death.’ The FCI Aliceville public information officer did not return multiple requests for comment. Reason has been waiting for more than a year for additional Freedom of Information Act records concerning these incidents.
None of the women who died were sentenced to death. And “under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, the government had a legal obligation to provide basic necessities to them, including health care.” But these women were denied their Eighth Amendment rights.
One of the women, Hazel McGary, had been going to Aliceville’s medical center multiple times a week complaining of chest pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Her daughters had been calling the prison for months trying to get help for their mother before she died from a heart attack.
The report describes how difficult it is for inmates to get any access to healthcare:
One doesn’t simply stroll in to see a doctor or a nurse in federal prison. Inmates must ask a corrections officer for an appointment as the officer walks by at ‘sick call’ every morning. If you miss it for whatever reason, tough luck. You have to wait until the next morning, unless you’re quite literally dying. Inmates put on the sick call list then go to a waiting room and wait, often for hours.
The full report details the tragic stories of these three women. With proper healthcare, their deaths could have been avoided. And countless other women suffer unnecessarily from a variety of health issues.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly difficult to show that the Eighth Amendment has been violated:
Maria Morris, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) National Prison Project, says that, while prisoners are guaranteed health care under the Eighth Amendment, the standard of care is fairly minimal. Under current Supreme Court precedent, an inmate challenging inadequate healthcare must show ‘deliberate indifference’ by officials.
‘I choose to believe that there are some prisons and jails that are doing a reasonably good job,’ Morris says. ‘That said, at the ones that I have looked at—and I’m often caused to look at them due to complaints—it’s abysmal.’
Morris says that in the prisons and jails she investigates she often finds officials generate paperwork to give the illusion of care, while doing little to actually address medical issues.
This is not a recently-developed issue. The ACLU has been in litigation with the Arizona Department of Corrections since 2012 over its lack of healthcare services.
As the report closes:
This story could have been written about any number of prisons or jails. Medical neglect of incarcerated people is a problem across the country on federal, state, and local levels. It’s a national disgrace—the kind people prefer to ignore. Prison officials downplay or hide the scope of it, there is a high bar for inmates trying to bring Eighth Amendment lawsuits challenging prison conditions, and the public by and large pays little attention to what happens behind prison walls.
Read the full report here, it’s worth the read.