Free citizens can pick their medical provider and choose good care or at least not go back to a doctor they find incompetent. Prisoners don’t have that option.
Federal and state prisons routinely hire underqualified, unlicensed, and even disgraced medical staff, the Marshall Project reported July 1.
Since 1999 the nonprofit National Commission on Correctional Health Care has recommended that the credentials of prison and medical care staff be the same as those working on the outside, reported the article.
Those in charge of the federal prison system’s Health Services Division during the COVID-19 emergency didn’t have medical licenses, said union leaders, prison health care workers, and prisoner rights advocates.
Critics argue that part of the reason that prisons weren’t able to handle the coronavirus pandemic properly is that states allow medical staffers in correctional facilities to work under restricted licenses due to past disciplinary issues.
The lack of qualified staff would explain the 258 inmate deaths and the nearly 50,000 COVID-positive inmates as of late June, the report stated.
Politicians and union leaders criticized the federal Bureau of Prisons, which failed to follow its own pandemic plan by pressuring guards to work while sick and also by buying knock-off N-95 masks.
States like California, Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas have shown troubling hiring practices, according to investigations and court records. Some state officials said they vetted doctors on a case by case basis and provide adequate care, according to the Associated Press and The Appeal. A few states said that they couldn’t find enough doctors otherwise and couldn’t compete with private practice salaries, according to The Oklahoman and Prison Legal News.
Andrew Armstrong is a law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and has studied prison medical care. “To people who are inside, it’s not always clear what the credentials are of the person who is treating them,” she said. “They have a general sense that they are getting the people who can’t get jobs anywhere else.”
The author of the Marshall Project story, Keri Blakinger, said, “When I was locked up in New York a decade ago, our vetting process came down to rumors and fear. ‘Don’t go to that doctor — he gropes people,’ one of my friends warned me. ‘That nurse only gives you medication if she likes you,’ said another.
“There were stories about women who had the wrong teeth removed or got the wrong medication or one lady who was so constipated she supposedly went septic and died. We usually didn’t know if the rumors were true, but we knew they could be — and we made our health care decisions accordingly.
“Sometimes, that meant we refused medical care or just didn’t seek it out. During the pandemic, prisoners from New York to Texas to California told me they hid signs of illness or refused treatment because they didn’t trust prison officials or medical staff. That suspicion is one reason some incarcerated people are still reluctant to get vaccinated.”
Dr. Yvon Nazaire was accused of mishandling the medical treatment of nine women who died and one woman who ended up in a vegetative state. Nazaire and other prison officials ignored her medical distress and accused her of faking her symptoms, reported The Marshall Project.
Nazaire was hired as a medical director in Georgia even though he was still on probation in another state. The state paid over $3 million to settle lawsuits involving him and another doctor. Nazaire was fired in 2015 and the state-sanctioned him when his medical license expired, reported the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
When the coronavirus hit the federal Bureau of Prisons last year, the senior official responsible for overseeing health care and safety in all of the more than 120 lockups was Nicole English, a career corrections officer who had a graduate degree in public administration and lacked any hands-on health care experience. At the height of the pandemic, she left that position, and her replacement, Michael Smith, also had no formal medical education.
Union leaders have blamed the federal prison system’s poor handling of the pandemic on higher-ups who lack medical expertise — such as the assistant director overseeing the Health Services Division.
Aaron McGlothin, union president at the federal prison in Mendota, Calif., is among the correctional workers who said the agency’s handling of the pandemic is proof of the need for more medical expertise among the system’s executives.
“They spent $3 million buying UV portals,” McGlothin said. “They said these killed the coronavirus — but they weren’t FDA-approved.” That was one of the reasons he declined the vaccination at work and decided to wait several weeks to get the shot on his own.
“I don’t trust the agency,” he said of the Bureau of Prisons. “I’m not putting my health and safety in the hands of the BOP.”