With four deaths in five months at Virginia’s Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW), a federal district court began moving its focus from care for individual prisoners to systematic change in July 2019.
The Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) was party to a 2016 settlement in a lawsuit alleging the provision of medical care at FCCW violated prisoners’ constitutional rights. (Scott et al v. Clarke, U.S.D.C. (W.D. VA), case No. 3:12-cv-00036.) The agreement required VDOC to meet 22 health-care standards.
VDOC failed to fulfill its end of the deal and by January 2019 twelve prisoners had died while in FCCW’s custody since the settlement was approved. “Some women have died along the way,” said federal district Judge Norman K. Moon. VDOC vowed to hire 78 more nurses at that hearing.
That order is significant but not enough, said Shannon Ellis, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “The judge’s order did not specify what level of qualifications the nurses need to have, and a historic problem at Fluvanna and at prisons across Virginia is very underqualified medical professionals,” Ellis said.
Margaret Breslau, head of the Coalition for Justice in Blacksburg, related a story that illustrates Ellis’ point. “A woman, after trying to get on sick call forever and ever and ever finally gets to see an OB/GYN, and they discover a mass the size of an eggplant. She has had pain. She’s had bleeding. The doctor tells her — and she has paperwork on this — to eat more vegetables.”
The care provided to prisoner Margie Ryder was brought to the court’s attention. Ryder suffered from pulmonary arterial hypertension, a terminal disease if not treated properly.
“She depends on life-saving medication that has to be administered every two days,” said Ellis. “She’s been hospitalized … multiple times because of failures to have her medication available, failures to have the pump necessary to administer it, administration of the medication in incorrect amounts, so at times she has symptoms of toxicity.”
Ryder, 39, died in July 2019, just three months prior to her scheduled release. VDOC issued a statement after her death. “As is public knowledge following her lawsuit, she had a terminal illness.” Left unsaid was that University of Virginia Medical Center staff expressed concern with the care she was receiving at FCCW.
“My conscience says I have to speak out on Ms. Ryder’s behalf,” nurse Lauren Bedard wrote in a court filing. “Every time I see this patient … I wonder if it will be the last time I see her alive.”
Prisoner Shannon Dillon said prisoners often have to practice Civil War medicine. “I had a tooth pulled, and I kept telling them, ‘It still hurts. I think it’s infected.’ They still didn’t have me on the appointment list,” she said. “It’s starting to smell. It is killing me, so I got a bunch of Q-tips and a bunch of salt from the chow hall, and I dug out the infection with the Q-tips and packed it with salt from the chow hall.”
Ellis said FCCW is not the only prison with poor medical care. “At Goochland Women’s Prison, which is about 20 miles down the road from Fluvanna, the same practices that led to our lawsuit at Fluvanna are going on,” she said. “For example, LPNs conducting sick call. Having these underqualified nurses making diagnostic decisions is something the Department of Corrections is clearly aware is an unacceptable practice.”
Ellis, meanwhile, is hopeful that the hiring of FCCW’s new medical director, who practiced at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Virginia, makes things better.
“We are very happy that the department has hired Dr. Paul Targonski as the new medical director of the prison, and we have a lot of confidence in his skill and his desire to improve conditions at the prison,” Ellis told WVTF.org. “However, he’s working within a system that remains poorly funded and has a culture and history of not providing good care.”
Prisoners, meanwhile, pray that they don’t have any health issues while imprisoned. “It is a fear, an inherent fear with all women here, that if you get sick it could possibly be fatal,” said Dillon.
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