by Michael Rigby
The medical, dental, and mental health care provided to female prisoners at the Taycheedah Correctional Institution in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin, is so "grossly deficient" that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, according to a federal class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on May 1, 2006. The suit--brought in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin under 42 U.S.C. § 1983; Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12132; and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794--lists numerous examples of human suffering due to spurious health care and inadequate staffing. It also contends that women receive mental health care that is far inferior to that afforded male prisoners. The findings of a Department of Justice (DOJ) report released the same day makes similar accusations regarding conditions and treatment for mentally ill women.
Health care at Taycheedah has long been dysfunctional. The issue was spotlighted in February 2000 following the death of Michelle Greer, 29. Guards had twice gone to the prison's infirmary seeking help for Greer after she told them she couldn't breathe and her asthma inhaler wasn't helping. Without examining her, nurses determined there was no emergency because she could still talk. Greer died on the floor of the prison chow hall after she collapsed, still clutching her inhaler. Several months after Greer's death union officials representing Wisconsin Department of Corrections (WDOC) medical personnel characterized health care at Taycheedah as being in a "state of crisis." Two subsequent investigations, one by the Legislative Audit Bureau completed in May 2001 and another by the National Commission on Correctional Health Care released in December 2002, found that WDOC health services were poorly organized and managed and expressed concern over chronic understaffing and the delivery of controlled medications by guards. The suit contends that "little has changed since then."
Horror stories concerning inadequate care at Taycheedah are legion. Kristine Flynn, one of the four named plaintiffs, for example, has a history of uterine cancer and suffers from bipolar mood disorder and social anxiety syndrome. In June 2005, Flynn, 48, noticed a lump in her thigh and filed numerous sick-calls regarding the lump. But medical personnel told her it was "just fatty tissue." It wasn't until June 2006 that the lump was diagnosed as a benign tumor and removed. By then it was golf-ball sized and removing it caused irreparable nerve and tissue damage. Disturbingly, this was not Flynn's first experience with Taycheedah's inept health care. In June 2002 she attempted suicide after the prison's psychiatric staff abruptly discontinued the eight psychotropic medications she was taking.
Other examples of endemic mistreatment and neglect at Taycheedah include Tammy Young and Debbie Ann Ramos. Young developed painful sores on her head in November 2003. For the next two years she awoke most mornings with her hair encrusted with blood and pus. The sores were finally cultured in September 2005 and the culprit revealed:
methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA--a highly contagious and potentially fatal form of staph infection. Not surprisingly, the incidence of MRSA infection at Taycheedah has soared in the past several years, according to the suit. Ramos, 43, another of the named plaintiffs, went years without seeing a gynecologist despite a diagnosis of chronic endometriosis. She was ultimately forced to undergo a hysterectomy that could have been avoided with proper care. "These situations are not isolated mistakes," said Larry Dupuis, the ACLU of Wisconsin's legal director. "They are manifestations of a system that has been in crisis for years and the state has made no meaningful effort to address its underlying problems."
The lawsuit, filed by Dupuis and attorneys David C. Fathi and Gouri Bhat of the ACLU's National Prison Project, further alleges that the WDOC employs only one part-time dentist to treat all 700 Taycheedah prisoners. As a result, "prisoners with painful dental problems sometimes remain on the ?urgent wait list? for weeks before they are seen ...."
As bad as medical and dental care are at Taycheedah, the prison's mental health system may be responsible for even more misery. Named plaintiff Vanessa Parker, who is sometimes suicidal, was found by a court to be in need of in-patient psychiatric treatment. However, she has never left the prison for psychiatric care since her imprisonment in 1994 and rarely sees onsite mental health staff. The DOJ report noted further examples of egregious neglect, including Angela Enoch, 18, who committed suicide in June 2005. Though supposedly in observation at Monarch--Taycheedah's mental health unit--she managed to strangle herself with seams ripped from her pillow. Before her death she "bad been pleading for psychiatric help." The DOJ report called the prison's treatment of mentally ill prisoners "unacceptable" and threatened additional lawsuits if the situation is not remedied.
The report also criticized the use of solitary confinement as an alternative to mental health treatment. In July 2005, as part of the yearlong investigation, DOJ investigators found that 44 of the 59 women in segregation at Taycheedah had "serious mental illnesses and were observed to be in significant distress." One prisoner they observed was clearly psychotic and had a long history of mental illness that included drinking her urine and eating her feces. She had been segregated for disciplinary problems, including "disrespect." Another mentally ill prisoner, a 15-year-old girl, was also in long-term lockdown for disciplinary problems. She was receiving no medication or treatment.
"Placing an unmedicated, mentally ill teenager in segregation, with little or no stimulation, and no education services causes psychological damage that may be irreversible," the report said. "The waiting time for her release from segregation would feel like a lifetime to a girl of this age."
The report also expressed concern over "grossly inadequate" psychiatric staffing; medicating mentally ill women without monitoring "the consequences, effectiveness, or potential side effects"; failure to "provide a minimal array of mental health programming, crisis services, and specialized treatment for inmates with acute mental illness"; and placing women who threaten to kill themselves in segregation with no treatment other than medication. What's more, taxpayers may actually be paying for non-existent mental health services. "Although Taycheedah's Annual Report for Fiscal Year 2005 describes an elaborate array of programming, we found that very little actually exists," investigators said.
Confronted with the nightmare at Taycheedah, some in the Wisconsin legislature are now calling for reform. "It is an embarrassment for our state," said Representative Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee), who is also a physician. "This is an absolute horror. What we are doing is something from the dark ages. Why does it take the threat of a federal lawsuit to get Wisconsin to do something about it? This is going to cost millions of dollars to fix." Ironically, the $7.50 Wisconsin prisoners are charged for a health services visit--the highest co pay in the nation--has done little to alleviate the problem. The WDOC currently has the highest suicide rate in the nation. See Flynn v. Doyle, USDC ED WI, Case No. 06-C-537-RTR, and the DOJ report Re: Investigation of the Taycheedah Correctional Institution (May 1, 2006) for more.
Additional sources: jsonline.com, AP, ACLU News Release
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Related legal case
Flynn v. Doyle
|Cite||USDC ED WI, Case No. 06-C-537-RTR|