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DOJ Investigates CMS Health Care at Missouri Prison

DOJ Investigates CMS Health Care At Missouri Prison

by Michael Rigby

Allegations of improper medical treat-ment, lack of medical treatment, and several suspicious deaths at the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, a state women's prison in Vandalia, Missouri, has prompted an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Health care services at the prison are provided by Correctional Medical Services (CMS).

Death is no stranger at the Vandalia prison. On March 23, 2003, Crystal Smith was found unresponsive in her cell. She was later pronounced dead. Her sister, Angela Smith Hynes, voiced concerns that Smith may have been denied needed medications.

On July 2, 2003, Vandalia prisoner Al'Deana Simmons, 33, was pronounced dead after she was discovered unconscious. Prison officials told her mother, Virginia Terry, that she had choked on her breakfast; however, the death certificate listed the cause of death as a ruptured aneurysm. Terry said that her daughter had been complaining about poor health care at the prison in her letters and phone calls home. Simmons called home the day before she died. "She said her head was sizzling and that she was going blind," said Terry. "The prison doctor saw her for 10 minutes and said nothing was wrong."

In September 1999, Stephanie Rane Summers, 48, died from untreated hepatitis C at a Columbia, Missouri hospital after being transferred there from the Vandalia prison. The state had granted Summers a medical parole just 13 hours before her death, said Summers' sister, Sara Gilpin. According to Gilpin, for 2 ½ years prison doctors refused to test her sister for hepatitis C or evaluate her for placement on a liver transplant list, even though it was recommended by outside doctors who examined Summers. "All my sister was ever given was vitamin K shots to help (blood) clotting and water pills to remove the fluid," said Gilpin, who has filed a federal lawsuit over her sister's death.

Life threatening problems are endemic at the Vandalia prison. On July 4, 2003, 13 women were taken to the hospital because a CMS nurse gave them the wrong medication. One woman was rushed to the hospital by ambulance and placed in intensive care. Several other women were admitted, and four were kept for observation. The women, all of whom were supposed to receive Prozac, were possibly given Sinequan instead, said CMS spokesman Ken Fields. Like Prozac, Sinequan is an antidepressant but with sedative-like effects. (CMS has a history of overdosing prisoners on the wrong medication. See PLN, October 2002.)

The DOJ's Civil Rights Division is now investigating complaints about the quality of medical care CMS is providing at the prison. Under the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, the U.S. Attorney General may investigate institutions such as nursing homes and prisons and initiate civil actions to remedy a "pattern or practice" of unlawful conditions, 42 U.S.C. § 1997a. (Ironically, CMS was awarded its first Missouri contract under former governor John Ashcroft in 1992. As U.S. Attorney General, Ashcroft now heads the DOJ.)

The Missouri Department of Corrections has attempted to stymie the investigation by refusing investigators access to the prison infirmary or staff, and requiring that prisoners be interviewed only in the visitation area during normal visiting hours. Nonetheless, investigators made 3 trips to the prison and interviewed 127 prisoners. Terry and Gilpin also met with investigators, providing them with medical records and other evidence.

At the DOJ's request, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) interviewed several women at the prison and has launched its own investigation into 51 complaints about health care in Missouri prisons. (For more on CMS's bad medicine see PLN, December 2000, p. 1. and Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor.)

Sources: The Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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