Expert panel criticizes medical care at Illinois prisons
CHICAGO (AP) — A scathing new report by court-approved researchers paints a bleak picture of medical care in Illinois prisons, describing extended treatment delays, haphazard follow-up care, chaotic record keeping and a litany of other problems.
The 405-page report, based on prison visits over several months and access to thousands of prison records, suggests that shoddy care may have shortened the lives of some convicts, including a former Chicago street gang member who died of lung cancer.
Promptly disputed by the Illinois Department of Corrections, the report was filed late Tuesday night in U.S. District Court in Chicago in a class-action lawsuit against the agency that oversees 49,000 inmates. The department said in a statement that the report “uses a broad brush to paint an incomplete picture of the comprehensive medical system in place.”
The report closely scrutinized the cases of 63 prisoners who became ill and died in recent years. There were, it said, “significant lapses” in care in 60 percent of those cases, calling that rate “unacceptably high.”
The report highlights the case of Edward Thomas, a one-time Gangster Black Disciple convicted of first-degree murder for throwing a rival head first down a Chicago elevator shaft, according to filings in his criminal case.
The report doesn’t include names of inmates, but it included Thomas’ prison, age and the date of his death. A county coroner who did the autopsy on Thomas confirmed to The Associated Press that he was the inmate who died of lung cancer on Jan. 30, 2013.
Thomas knew something was wrong when he began coughing up blood at Galesburg’s Hill Correctional Center in 2012. Despite Thomas’ pleas for help, the report says it took doctors six months to find a softball-size cancerous tumor clinging to his neck and lung. It was too late. He died four months later, at age 48.
“The blatant disregard for this patient’s obvious symptoms ... is stunning,” the report said. “Despite the patient’s repeated earnest cries for help, including several instances wherein he was essentially stating, ‘I think I have cancer,’ his symptoms were brushed off ... until ... this dying man could no longer be ignored.”
In sentencing him to an 80-year prison term in 1984, a judge said Thomas had displayed “exceptionally brutal” behavior by tossing 20-year-old Kevin Tremble five floors to his death.
Most inmates weren’t convicted of violent crimes, according to Benjamin Wolf, a plaintiffs’ attorney and chief legal counsel of the ACLU of Illinois. But even the ones who were, he argued, deserve better.
“The measure of justice of a society is how it treats its most vulnerable, including prisoners,” he said. “No one sentenced these guys to suffer and die of inadequate health care.”
Inmate Don Lippert, a diabetic, brought the 2010 civil suit that contends “deliberate indifference” about Illinois inmates’ medical care violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
Plaintiffs argued that part of the blame lies with one of the named defendants, Wexford Health Services, Inc., which was awarded a 10-year, $1.3 billion contract to provide health care to state inmates in 2011.
Lippert’s complaint says Illinois pays Wexford a per-prisoner fee and “thus has an economic incentive to provide minimal care.” Wexford has denied that in earlier filings. Messages left at its Pittsburgh headquarters weren’t returned.
“Illinois has been unable to meet minimal constitutional standards with regards to the adequacy of its health care program,” the new report said.
The agency statement said researchers were wrong to draw that conclusion after visiting just eight of 25 prisons — including Stateville outside Chicago, Menard in southern Illinois, Dixon in the north, and Pontiac and Logan in central Illinois.
The report’s lead author, Ronald Shansky, is a nationally recognized authority on prison health care. In filings, the corrections department agreed he was highly qualified.
Prisons report: http://bit.ly/1eg4T3x
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