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Prisoner Dies at Purdy

In the April, 1994, issue of PLN we reported Hallett v. Payne, a class action suit filed by prisoners at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW) at Purdy. The suit contends medical care is wholly inadequate to meet the medical needs of prisoners. On May 16, 1994, Gertrude Barrow, a WCCW prisoner died because a hole in her stomach permitted fluids to leak out, causing inflammation and infection. Barrow had been convicted of a narcotics charge with a 31 month sentence; she was due to be released September 14, 1994.

According to an article in the May 18, 1994, edition of the Seattle Times, Barrow had sought medical care from prison officials in the days before she died. Her symptoms included the fact that she was in pain, couldn't hold food down and was vomiting blood. She was sent back to her cell. Two days before her death she was admitted to the prison infirmary, and she was not seen by a physician until the day before she died. Prison doctor Christopher Badger had diagnosed her pains as gas, constipation and, after an x-ray, kidney stones. The condition that killed Barrow was a perforated, chronic gastric ulcer with acute peritonitis.

A University of Washington physician familiar with treating such conditions stated that standard treatment would have included placing Barrow in an intensive care unit, taking of blood samples, prescribing powerful antibiotics to fight infection combined with medication to reduce the risk of going into shock. Instead, the only medication Barrow received before she died was a mild, over the counter painkiller.

On April 19, 1994, Barrow had been returned to Purdy from a prerelease center suffering from chills, vomiting and being unable to eat. Despite the kidney stone diagnosis she had received no pain medication. On May 3, 1994, she contacted attorneys at Evergreen Legal Services who are litigating the lawsuit on behalf of the prisoners. Attorney Patricia Arthur wrote to the state attorney general's office about Barrow's condition requesting that she be provided with prompt medical attention. Assistant AG Cheryl Casey claims the letter was forwarded to the prison. Prison spokesperson Kim Shafer stated Casey had instructed her not to comment on prison officials' inaction.

The plaintiff's attorneys have obtained a federal court order to obtain Barrow's medical records and treatment history. They will continue to investigate her death. Patricia Arthur referred to Barrow's death as a "preventable tragedy. It's really indicative of the problems with the health care system there." Prior to Barrow's death the parties had been in the process of negotiating a settlement to the suit. Negotiations were apparently suspended after this event.

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