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Healthcare Audit in Utah Prisons Reveals “Inadequate Service” and “Systemic Deficiencies” After 18 Prisoner Deaths During Pandemic

by Benjamin Tschirhart

When Brandy Gillespie emailed the Clinical Services Bureau (CSB) at Utah State Prison, she was afraid for her husband, prisoner Jerry Gillespie, 48. It was November 2020 and state prisons were in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic. The response she received was a mixture of bureaucratic platitudes and outright lies.

Gillespie last spoke with her husband on November 4. On November 13, CSB Director Tony Washington wrote “he is checked on daily and reported today not having any further needs at this time…We have no medical indicator of him being in the condition you described. To summarize, he was doing well today, and I hope that alleviates your concerns.”

In fact, though, Jerry Gillespie was suffering from COVID-19. When he died 12 days later, his wife still didn’t know he’d been sent to a hospital.

Prisoner David Bills, confined with Gillespie in the prison’s unit for the medically vulnerable, told his wife shortly before he died that he did not want to go to the infirmary, saying: “They chain you to a filthy bed and let you piss all over yourself.”

Eight days later, Bills was dead as well. He and Gillespie were among 18 prisoner deaths recorded in the fall of 2021 by the state Department of Corrections (DOC), raising its COVID-19 death rate 19 times higher than that of the state’s general population.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, families and advocacy groups like the ACLU demanded an audit of DOC’s Clinical Services Bureau. Conducted by the Office of the Legislative General, the audit was released on December 7, 2021, and its findings presented to the Utah state legislature, including that the healthcare system in DOC suffered from “systemic deficiencies” and that CSB was not “fully compliant” with national accreditation standards.

Examples of these ‘deficiencies’ include lack of patient monitoring and follow-up, insulin distribution which does not meet protocol or follow international standards, and failure to ensure protection of prisoners’ private health information. The audit team found discarded treatment sheets in the public dumpsters outside the prison, along with improperly discarded medication and a used syringe.

The audit mentions “inadequate oversight from multiple levels of personnel” resulting in incorrect performance reports and metrics which do not reflect “actual program operations” and reports that DOC’s 5,000 prisoners “lack consistent access to clinical judgements made by qualified healthcare professionals.” EMTs were found to be responsible for duties outside the scope of their education and training, and CSB failed to provide correct treatments and medications to prisoners.

DOC Executive Director Brian Nielson, while “generally supportive of [the] findings,” nevertheless insisted the services provided by the CSB were both “appropriate and adequate.” He also insisted that no effort was made by prison officials to mislead family members of prisoners concerning their loved ones’ health or deaths. His assertions stand in stark contrast to the reports of the prisoners, as well as assessments of the state’s American Civil Liberties Union chapter.

Perhaps the most honest assessment of the conditions to which prisoners were subjected in Utah’s prisons during the pandemic came from a set of “challenge coins” commissioned by guards. Each features the image of a grinning demonic skeleton behind bars and the words: “Utah prison conditions…Hell on Earth”.

The families of the prisoners who died of COVID-19 have demanded an investigation. But Republican state Sen. Todd Weiler, leader of the legislature’s DOC oversight committee, said he was “not going to assume there was a mistake” in the medical care given to prisoners, because people were also dying of COVID outside the prison.

Brandy Gillespie, though, is not so hesitant. “They took my kids’ opportunity away to talk to their dad,” she said. See: Report to the Utah Legislature No. 2021-17: A Performance Audit of Healthcare in State Prisons (Dec. 2021).

The Utah Prisoner Advocate Network reported in May 2022 that DOC had still not ordered an internal review in the wake of the audit findings. But CSB began reviewing a sample of prisoner health cases monthly in January 2022, in an effort to provide additional oversight. However, diabetic prisoners still reported problems getting through the “pill line” in time to maintain their blood sugar levels, as well as a lack of commissary items to ward off blood-sugar drops.  

Additional source: The Hill, KJJZ, KSTU

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