Our Voices > Dispatches from Inside

Medical Malpractice in Prison: Where is the ‘Care’?

Mar 24, 2023

By Pam Bailey

Medical care — both lack of and poor quality — is the one of the most common topics of complaints that we hear from people confined in federal prison. To offer a flavor of just how poor medical care can be in the Bureau of Prisons system, we offer below a sampling of recent reports from just one of the institutions: the medium-security Hazelton prison in West Virginia.

Damen: My nightmare started with a stomachache. I went to Medical and they took x-rays and told me I was just real constipated. They gave me some stuff to drink and an enema. If it didn’t work, I should come back the next day. It didn’t, and I did. They gave me pills this time, but by the next day the pain was so bad I was in tears. I went to Medical again and they tried to turn me around, saying the nurse was busy and I should to come back tomorrow. 

I refused and told them I would become a problem if they didn’t help me. I’d act out or whatever I needed to do. They responded that it wouldn’t solve anything but finally decided to take a look at my x-rays again. And guess what? They found that I actually had appendicitis! 

I was rushed to the hospital and into surgery, where they had to remove more than the usual amount of tissue. My body was leaking poisons. 

When I left the hospital later, I was prescribed some very strong, eight-hour antibiotics. But the prison didn’t give them to me for three days. They said they couldn’t find it! About a week and a half after my surgery, I started feeling weak and light-headed. I went back to Medical and they couldn’t detect any movement in my stomach. I was rushed back to the hospital and found out I had an abscess the size of a plum growing by my bladder. Once again, I needed surgery.  And once again, when I returned from the hospital, I was forced to go without the prescribed med. This time, I freaked out on the staff and one of the higher-ups got it herself.

Thankfully, I recovered. But when I first got here, people were dying from medical conditions on average of every three months. People would say they didn’t feel good and the staff didn’t take them seriously. They brushed them off like they tried to do to me. The only reason I got the help I needed was that I started to act out. I refused to leave. If I had been obedient, I probably would have gone back to my cell to die.

James: At the age of 6, I developed ADHD. I climbed up on a garage roof and my mother yelled to get down. So, I ran to the back of the roof, spun and took off as fast as I could. I jumped headfirst off the roof. I blew out both of my collar bones and compressed my spine. Now, I have degenerative disk disease as well as nerve damage. 

Over the past 10 years, it’s gotten bad. A specialist who came to the prison said I needed surgery on my neck and lower back and if I didn’t get it I’d wake up one day paralyzed. He ordered an MRI and I was approved, but then I was denied because they didn’t want to take me on the trip. To cover for it, one of the medical personnel tried to get me to sign a refusal form. I told him I would never do that…I need this MRI. I can’t see a neurologist or get surgery without it. 

Honestly, I’m afraid for my life and I’m worried I won’t receive the proper medical care in time to prevent long-term damage.


Christian: I have atrial fibrillation and epilepsy. Shortly after being incarcerated about a year and three months ago, I started having seizures frequently. 

Then, on June 17 of last year, I was wrongfully charged for allegedly violating BOP regulations, with no merit to support it. I was taken to the SHU with no explanation. Shortly after, I requested my seizure and blood pressure medications. I was told it would be brought, but I never received it. After a few hours of asking and pleading, I was told Health Services would see me in the morning. 

I went to bed not feeling well at all. Morning came and Health Services never came. I continued to ask for help to no avail. My condition worsened and I felt a seizure coming on. Trying to suppress it, I showered and laid down. But then I fell into a seizure, and I only remember coming to with nothing but my boxers on. My hands were cuffed behind my back and my ankles were shackled too. I had scratches and bruises on my arms and body, including my neck. I was disoriented, lethargic and very incoherent. Staff said I was faking my symptoms, that I had “scared goat syndrome.” But I have medical records to prove my condition. 

They dragged me back to my room because I was barely able to walk. This made me feel unsafe and scared to seek to further help from staff/Health Services. I finally got my medication but remained unseen and unheard during my remaining time in the SHU. 

Zachary.: I’ve had urinary tract-related problems my whole life, and the BOP has that in its records. In September, I had surgery to remove a kidney stone. But there were complications during the procedure. What I understand is that the doctor couldn’t get a guide wire through my urinary tract due to strictures. So, I was closed up with 12 staples and a Foley catheter was inserted. The catheter was supposed to be temporary, until another surgery (called a urethroplasty) could be performed to open up my urinary tract. 

Thirty-two days later, that other procedure hadn’t been done, and I developed a bad infection. The head of Medical for the compound made the call to remove the catheter. But nine days after that, my urinary tract closed up completely. For two days, I couldn’t urinate AT ALL. I ended up in the emergency room, where another catheter was inserted. But again, that’s supposed to be temporary.

But since then, I’ve had the Foley catheter, and several infections have developed. In fact, I have one now. I get bladder spasms so bad from the trauma that I uncontrollably urinate around the catheter and all over myself every day. I have deteriorated both physically and mentally. I have lost 40 pounds and I’m so fearful I’ll get jumped on [in a fight] and get the catheter ripped out that I’m no longer the outspoken guy I once was. Honestly, I’m afraid for my life and I’m worried I won’t receive the proper medical care in time to prevent long-term damage. 

I’ve just started the internal grievance process to try to get some action, but that takes so long, and retaliation is often the only response. 

Tyrone: I suffer from keratoconus, a rare eye disease. As a result of the lack of adequate medical treatment, I am rapidly losing my vision. I’ve been in FCI Hazelton over 16 months and I haven’t been given the special contacts that could help.  The FCI Hazelton Medical Department has refused and continues to refuse to do anything that will help me maintain my eyesight. It’s like being lost in deep space, seeing only blurs of images. 

Jacky: I have severe sleep apnea and yet I can’t get a CPAP machine. Medical staff here say their providers are out of stock, but I’ve been waitlisted for a year!

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