"Medical Rights"

Marqui Clardy

The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the cruel & unusual punishment of offenders, ensures that we're afforded the "right" to adequate healthcare in prison. In accordance, most prisons have on-site medical departments staffed with healthcare workers 24/7. There are standards of care they must meet, a formal process for us to request appointments for medical treatment, and even an emergency grievance process for us to request emergency care when needed. On paper, it would appear that adequate healthcare wouldn't be an issue behind bars. But what happens when the healthcare workers (and other staff) at institutions don't uphold the policies/standards that are in place to help us?

Last month, I experienced firsthand how our so-called healthcare "right" is nullified when prison staff undermine the medical policies at their whim. It began when I woke up one morning with what I assumed was a sore tooth. Throughout the day, the pain intensified until it became completely unbearable. By that night, I had a fever and the tooth seemed to be throbbing. It was unlike any pain I'd ever felt, and it kept me from getting any sleep that night.

The next morning when I looked in the mirror, I noticed that a small knot had formed on my gums, right where the pain was emanating from. I immediately knew it was a dental abscess. Dental abscesses are considered medical emergencies because they're pockets of infection. If left untreated, they can spread to other parts of your body, burst, and get into your bloodstream (which is highly fatal), or cause permanent damage to your mouth. I knew I needed to get to Medical ASAP, so - as policy requires - I approached an officer and requested an emergency grievance form. After explaining my emergency, I gave the form to the officer and returned to my cell to wait to be called to Medical. However, the entire day passed, and I was never called. [According to policy, the officer should've taken the emergency grievance form to Medical, had them sign it, and returned a receipt to me so that I'd know they were aware of my emergency. Instead, the officer simply signed the form herself (unbeknownst to me at that time) and gave me a worthless receipt. Medical didn't call for me because they'd never received the emergency grievance.]

For the second night in a row, I was in too much pain to sleep - nor had I been able to eat anything all day - so at about 2 a.m., I approached a different officer to tell her I needed emergency medical treatment. She responded by telling me, "Go back to my cell." I showed her the abscess on my gums, which had swollen even bigger, told her about my fever and the fact that I hadn't slept or eaten, and even explained-- tried explaining-- the danger of the infection. Yet again she responded, "Go back to your cell." No matter how much I pleaded with her, that was the only response she'd give me. She had no desire to help me at all.

Frustrated that I wasn't being allowed to go to Medical, I returned to my cell and waited until the officer announced "diabetic call" at 6 a.m. [That's when the diabetic offenders go to Medical for their insulin injections.] When they left, I snuck out of the building and walked to Medical with them. Sneaking out of my housing unit was a violation of the institutional rules and could've resulted in me being put in solitary confinement. But I honestly felt I had no choice. Imagine having to break the rules just to receive emergency medical treatment because following the proper procedure wasn't working.

I finally got to Medical and was able to explain all my symptoms to the nurses, but I was thrown for another loop when they told me they "couldn't" treat me because they didn't have an emergency grievance form on file for me. I told them I'd already submitted one (the form I'd given to the first officer who neglected to bring it to them), but they said I had to go back to my housing unit and submit ANOTHER one before they could treat me. I couldn't believe my ears! Not only are abscesses dangerous - which they surely knew, but the pain I was in almost had me in tears and I hadn't slept in over 48 hours. Yet, the medical staff who should've been helping me were turning me away. I can't remember the last time I felt that helpless. Thankfully, one of the inmate trustees who was cleaning the hallways saw what was going on and went to the back to get the dentist for me. She called me to her office and gave me the help I needed (a dental exam, anti-inflammatory meds, and antibiotics). This was an entire day and a half after I'd notified that first officer that I had a medical emergency.

This experience has me questioning how DOC defines adequate healthcare. Having to spend that long in pain because an officer neglected to turn in my emergency grievance; having to beg another officer to allow me to get emergency medical treatment (and being repeatedly turned away); having to sneak out of my housing unit just to get to Medical; having the nurses themselves attempt to turn me away . . . I'm certain that none of those constitute adequate healthcare. Giving us the "right" to adequate healthcare - or to anything else, for that matter - is only half of the equation. The other half is hiring staff who actually care about those rights AT LEAST enough to give us the help the law and DOC (Department of Corrections) policies say we're entitled to. Without both parts, our rights have no meaning.