Medical neglect kills prisoners in Washington state

A recent article in the Seattle Times revealed that Stephen Sinclair, the head of the Washington state Department of Corrections, was forced by Governor Jay Inslee to resign in January due to the gross mishandling of inmate health care. Initially framed as though he had simply decided to retire, the article reveals that he was actually forced out. The health care crisis in Washington state prisons had gained too much bad publicity to continue to be ignored, and as the overseer of the entire prison system statewide, Sinclair was held responsible and ousted.

How bad is healthcare for prisoners in Washington? In July 2020, Michael Boswell, an inmate of a Washington state prison died of melanoma a month after starting chemotherapy. His cancer had been left untreated despite repeated requests, complaints and grievances beginning in May 2019. By the time Boswell was finally allowed treatment, it was too late. Another anonymous patient had been experiencing blood in their urine since 2017. It became a daily occurrence in January 2020, and between March and July he was treated for a urinary tract infection five different times. A large mass was discovered in July, and it wasn’t until August of that year that he was diagnosed with bladder cancer. He has undergone chemotherapy and will likely require extensive surgery.

These cases follow a trend of prisoners with undiagnosed cancers being completely ignored by prison medical staff. A recent investigative report from the Office of Corrections Ombuds reveals complaints from 11 inmates whose cancer diagnoses were delayed, in some cases, as much as a year and a half from the time symptoms were reported. 

Inmates in these facilities submitted grievance after grievance, and medical kite after medical kite, in order to receive appointments for biopsies and scans, which were then often delayed and rescheduled for months. They were prescribed medications to simply treat the bare minimum of their extremely serious symptoms. Patients experiencing severe abdominal pain and bloody stool were given constipation medication, which unsurprisingly gave no relief of the symptoms. The unnamed patient above did not receive any urology tests until his ongoing hematuria progressed from occasional and relatively mild to a severe and daily occurrence. When diagnoses and treatment of their cancers were finally procured, patients like Boswell had large, aggressive metastatic carcinomas. 

Early diagnosis is crucial for patients’ chances for survival. Ignoring cancer symptoms in prisons works effectively as a death sentence for these inmates. If regular cancer screenings had been provided for Washington state inmates, they could have avoided more extreme treatment options and most importantly in too many cased, a painful and avoidable death. However, the prison system has no motive to invest in the health of its inmates. It’s much easier on their budgets to, at best, provide palliative care or transfer them to another facility, and at worse, condemn them to death.

Interview with a prisoner

Liberation News spoke to a Washington state inmate, who shared: “Many of the sicknesses, and diseases and injuries that occur in society, they exist in our microcosmic prison-industrial complex as well.” 

Often the societal issues that we deal with day to day are even more pronounced in our prisons, where they are left unchecked in a large, densely-packed population. The prisoner revealed further oversights by the prison system: “Some time ago in Airway Heights, they had a water problem with foam that was found linked to a local air force base. It somehow had leaked into the drinking water and was connected to forms of cancer that began surfacing in some of the prison population on the east side.” 

This firefighting foam, used by some military installations, had been leaking into local aquifers for decades. This chemical runoff was not only a problem in the Airway Heights facility. Airway Heights prison’s food production factory distributes food to several other Washington state prisons, as well as 70 other customers, according to an article in the Spokesman Review. This decades-long health and safety issue, coupled with severe negligence by the prisons’ medical system towards inmates with early and sometimes advanced cancers made for a catastrophic combination.

The DOC in a public statement expressed little more than begrudging disappointment in the current state of their inmate health care system. In the DOC’s response to OCO’s report, they wrote: “It is not acceptable for those under our care to experience waits for diagnostics and treatments that could potentially impact their well being,” 

To say DOC put it mildly would be an understatement. Delayed cancer diagnoses are not a matter of “well being,” but are almost always a matter of life and death. This thinly veiled indifference towards the life and health of prisoners does nothing to assure the improvement of DOC’s conduct going forward. 

All progressive and revolutionary people must stand with prisoners in their struggle for dignity and basic human rights including the right to health care. Those responsible for prisoners dying due to medical neglect must be held accountable. As long as the prison industrial complex exists, it will continue to allow those who have been deemed unproductive to capital to be casualties to their profits until a strong movement for justice rises up of people from both sides of the prison walls.

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