Medical Conditions at Valley State Prison for Women (VSPW)

by Ellen Richardson, VSPW
Approximately 33% of the female population is over the age of 40. We have high risk of osteoporosis, hypertension, type II adult diabetes, heart disease, breast and uterine cancers, pre-menopause and menopause. These conditions create long term care at a cost far in excess of the overall budget per inmate per year.

Women prisoners testifying at the legislative hearings
Women prisoners testifying at the legislative hearings

The continuity of medication (or the lack of it) is one of the top three problems here. The refill and renewal of chronic care medication is one of the major causes of need for continued care. The regulation that medication must be renewed every three months has a great effect on a chronic condition when it takes two to three weeks to get your medication renewed and you go without. A patient on medication for heart problems, or seizures, or thyroid, or high blood pressure goes to the MTA to let them know her meds are expired. By the time she gets to see a physician and gets her medication from the pharmacy she may have gone without it for that 2 to 3 week period. It does not take a doctor to figure out these lapses in medications cause more health problems. Most of us are even willing to be called “bitch” by some MTS staff, or other profanities, as long as we get our medication.
Another important issue is our co-pay process, which is the primary way to request to see medical staff. It is based on the ability to communicate by written word. As of August 2000, the average literacy level in the institution was [grade] 8.9. 755 inmates have literacy levels under [grade] 6.1 and approximately 100 are basic non readers or speak English as a second language.
The medical staff triage based on how the patient states her symptoms on paper. A woman may have extreme stomach pain and cramping, but only have the literacy level to write “I have a tummy ache.” That is not enough for medical staff to let her see a doctor over someone else fortunate enough to be able to explain her medical concern in more detail.
Our medical department works on an 8 hour work schedule, yet this is a 24 hour prison. If you are unfortunate to get sick or injured after 4:00 at night or on the weekend, you must see a nurse. There is no doctor here after 4:00 p.m. Since most doctors will not triage over the phone, you are told you will be scheduled for a visit on Monday. Most often you are never scheduled and must go through the process all over again.
There is no doctor/patient confidentiality here at VSPW or when you go out to the hospital. Here at the clinics and at the infirmary, the doors are open all the time (except ob-gyn) and inmates and other infirmary or clinic workers can hear everything that is being said by the doctor or patient. Staff and other inmates can then talk about your medical problems with anyone else they choose. There are two people in the room with the inmate-patient at all times, so there is no need for everyone to hear your medical problems and conditions.
Tax dollars are going toward medical expenses that would not be necessary if the patients could be seen by a physician, get a diagnosis and follow up treatment on a timely basis. The outcome for the patients here who have net gotten the care they need [is catastrophic]. Just ask the patient who had to have her breasts removed because of prolonged diagnosis and treatment. Or the diabetic who has to have her foot amputated. Or ask the thousands of women here who have been affected.
Title 15, section 3350 defines effective medical care as: protect life, prevent significant illness or disability or alleviate severe pain. I am sure that women who have had breasts removed due to medical [neglect] here feel this section of Title 15 must not have applied to them. I found it ironic that on the opposite page from “Medical Care and Definitions” is “Choice of Execution Method” on CDC form 1801. I am surprised that medical neglect is not one of the options for execution for those not serving the death sentence.
I do not know how to end this, other than to beg you to help us. I fear that when my voice fades out and these issues are put in the back of all your minds, more women will go home to their families without their breasts, many will go home without their health and some may not go home at all.
Ill health is not part of our sentence. Pain and disfigurement is not an enhancement added to our sentence. We will do our time, but we must be well in mind and body to do so. You have the power to help us. I know in my heart that there must be one person who has the compassion to see us as who we are. First and foremost we are someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s wife and some little one’s grandmother.

The Fire Inside will continue to print excerpts from the testimonies women prisoners gave at the legislative hearings in October 2000. See issue #16 for a report from those hearings.