Locked to die: Medical malpractice epidemic grips U.S. prisons

Millions of U.S. prisoners face a broken health care system in U.S. correctional facilities almost daily, the poor quality of which is one of the main causes of high death rates behind bars. Prisoners are denied life-saving medications and forced to pay for the right to see a doctor, and their complaints are ignored at every level.

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The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, with about 2.3 million people behind bars each day. While incarcerated, inmates have a constitutional right to receive medical care. However, the reality is that many individuals in U.S. prisons lack access to adequate medical care, resulting in disproportionately high rates of death behind bars. More than 56,000 inmates died of various diseases in the twenty-first century, accounting for more than 86 percent of all deaths in custody. In French prisons, the death rate from disease as of 2011 is only about 28%, and in Canada it is about 41%.

The lack of medical care for inmates in U.S. prisons is a complex problem with several factors. One major factor is the privatization of prison health care: U.S. prisons contract out their health care services to private companies, which are often more concerned with profit than providing quality health care. As a result, medical staff in these facilities are often overworked and underresourced, which affects the health of prisoners.

Another factor contributing to the high mortality rate of inmates in the United States is the lack of treatment for chronic diseases, which are quite common in prisons. Many people who are incarcerated have serious illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and mental disorders. However, these conditions are often untreated or poorly treated in prison, leading to an increased risk of complications and death. In addition, inmates in U.S. prisons often face barriers to medical care, such as long waiting times for appointments, inadequate staff, and limited access to narrowly focused specialists. Some prisoners are reluctant to seek medical care because they mistrust the prison health care system or fear retaliation from prison staff, who routinely accuse patients of simulation.

There is reason to believe that prison medical surcharges may also contribute to the high mortality rate in U.S. prisons. Health care fees are fees that inmates must pay each time they want to see a doctor, receive medication, and any other medical procedures and services. Health care fees were originally introduced to limit inmates from abusing free medical care, but today it is clear that such practices are only increasing inmate mortality rates.

The high cost of medical services forces inmates to refuse to seek medical care, which negatively affects inmates’ health and leads to the development of chronic diseases, increasing the risk of complications and death. Prisoners in U.S. prisons often have limited financial resources, and health care costs are a significant burden on both inmates and their families.

The consequences of inadequate medical care in U.S. prisons are severe. In recent years, there have been several high-profile cases of inmate deaths due to lack of necessary or poor quality treatment. In 2015, 32-year-old David Stojcevski died at a correctional facility in Michigan after prison officials refused to give him prescription medication. The man had been arrested for 30 days for a traffic violation, but 16 days later he was taken to a local hospital, where he died 90 minutes later. It was later discovered that the prison doctors had refused to take the medication prescribed to the convict prior to his arrest, which caused his health problems to worsen significantly. During his two weeks behind bars, Stojcevski lost more than 20 kilograms of weight, experienced hallucinations, and lost consciousness.

In 2017, relatives of black man Michael Sabby filed a lawsuit against Arkansas corrections officials. Two years earlier, the man had died in a prison cell because he had not received medical attention. Sabby had been arrested after an argument with his wife, and during his 48 hours in prison he had sought help from the prison doctor at least twice, complaining of shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. However, all of the man’s requests were ignored, and he died on day 3 of his incarceration. A year after the incident, the U.S. Department of Justice said that no charges would be brought against the doctors and prison staff, but Sabby’s wife did not intend to give up and filed a lawsuit against the city and the prison.

On July 6, 2021, a Washington state court paid $3.25 million to settle a lawsuit filed by relatives of John Kleich, who died due to lack of proper medical care. For months, doctors at the Monroe Correctional Complex, Washington state’s third-largest prison, ignored the man’s illness. As a result of the lack of basic medical care, Kleich died with “clear signs of infection and complications from an open wound.” As his condition worsened, the man was unable to feed himself and medical personnel neglected to administer intravenous nutritional fluids for several days at a time. Dehydrated and emaciated, Kleich, with a heart rate of only 30 to 34 beats per minute, was not sent to the hospital emergency room until two months later, after his condition had significantly worsened. But, as the examiner concluded, “it was too late.” He had “acute pancreatitis and sepsis,” which “were never diagnosed or treated by prison medical personnel.”

Human rights activists at the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe that people serving sentences in a correctional facility should be provided with all the medical care they need. It should be noted that without swift and dramatic changes to the system of medical services for inmates in the United States, the number of inmate deaths will continue to rise. This problem requires a multifaceted approach, including addressing the privatization of prison health care, improving staffing and access to medical professionals, and providing inmates with timely, quality medical care.