Forum highlights injustice within the prison health care system

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Heather Dalmage, Director of the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice, speaks about prison health care injustice on Saturday, Sep. 12. Photo by Rachel Popa

By Rachel Popa

A forum about the injustice of prison health care was held in the Congress Lounge on Sept. 12 from 2 to 4 p.m. The forum featured Curtis Zachery, William Earl Basset, Beverly Houston, Sharon Arnold and Peppi Martin, who all spoke about their experiences with injustice in the prison health care system. Mediating the forum was Rob Wildeboer, a criminal and legal affairs reporter for WBEZ.

One by one, Wildeboer called up each former prisoner to give their stories about their experiences with health care while they were incarcerated. First to speak was Zachery, who while in prison, cleaned showers, toilets and solitary confinement rooms, which resulted in him contracting Hepatitis C. Before beginning the work, the prison workers gave Zachery vaccines that they said prevented Hepatitis, despite there not being a vaccine that prevents the kind of Hepatitis Zachery contracted.

“I have first stage cirrhosis of the liver,” Zachery said in relation to his disease. “I had no symptoms; they didn’t test me for Hepatitis C. I never knew I had this.”

To treat his disease, Zachery needs to have a liver biopsy, which he cannot afford because he does not have health insurance.

Next to speak was Basset, who served 50 years in prison. For two years, Basset had blood in his urine. As a result, the prison workers gave Basset antibiotics for a urinary tract infection, when in reality he had bladder cancer. By the time that he finally went into surgery, the cancer had spread to his colon, resulting in the removal of his entire urinary tract.

“One of the nurses who knew me real well told me that I better do whatever it takes to get out of [the prison] because these people are going to let you die,” Basset said about trying to get medical treatment at the prison. During the period when he was having surgery to remove his urinary tract, his heart had deteriorated so much that he had to have a pacemaker in addition to his urostomy pouch.

After Basset, Houston told her story about having cancer in prison. Houston had vocal cord cancer that returned while she was serving her two year sentence at Decatur Correctional Center. When Houston was worried that her cancer was coming back one month into her sentence in Oct. 2010, the prison health care workers prescribed her bronchitis and asthma medications.

“During this time, I was told that I was faking illness, being a troublemaker, [and that] nothing was wrong with me,” Houston said.

Houston eventually had respiratory failure due to a blockage in her airway. The doctors at Decatur Memorial Hospital removed her voice box and a section of her thyroid, which caused her to lose her voice.

“They might have been able to save my voice if the recurrence of cancer had been discovered in October when I reported serious problems,” Houston said.

Last to speak was Martin, who talked about how he experienced painful and debilitating headaches while incarcerated. While he was having these headaches, he could not talk.

“I managed to [say] the word ‘pain’ and pointed to the left side of the back of my head,” Martin said. “The nurse took my blood pressure and gave me ibuprofen. I sat there all day and night, unable to say anything else.”

After his pain did not go away, Martin spent five days in the hospital until a supervisor found a hemorrhage on the left side of the back of his head. The supervisor then told Martin that he had a stroke.

“It took five months after the stroke to get my words out right,” Martin said. “Before the stroke, I used to speak and write well. I have to work much harder now, but I do keep working on improving.”

According to the forum’s mission statement, the individual stories given must serve as the foundation for placing a blazing spotlight on the issue of prison health care injustice.

“Really, it’s mass incarceration that is also a problem,” said Nancy Michaels, Assoc. Director of the Mansfield Institute in relation to prison healthcare injustice.

The Mansfield Institute is planning on holding a follow-up meeting about prison healthcare injustice and mass incarceration on Oct. 6. The forum is available to watch in its entirety on the university’s website.

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