Charlottesville’s Legal Aid Justice Center is suing the state Department of Corrections on behalf of inmates at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, claiming poor medical care at the prison has exposed them to cruel and unusual punishment and even resulted in deaths from untreated conditions.
The LAJC filed the class-action suit against officials at DOC and the department’s health care contractor, Armor Correctional Health Services, Inc., on behalf of five named plaintiffs and the rest of FCCW’s prisoners in U.S. District Court July 24. The plaintiffs claim Armor and DOC regularly ignored requests for treatment and dismissed symptoms, resulting in failure to provide constitutionally adequate care.
“The women suffer extreme pain for prolonged periods of time as a result of the refusal to provide for these women who have no other options for securing life-saving medical care,” said Abigail Turner, an attorney with the LAJC. “Almost all the pain and suffering could have been prevented.”
DOC spokesman Larry Traylor said it’s department policy not to comment on pending litigation. But he said many of the inmates enter prison with medical conditions they have neglected.
“Once health care is made available to them, they often want immediate cures, despite their years of self-neglect,” he said. “If a doctor feels a procedure is necessary to preserve life, reduce deterioration of health, and to follow a community standard of care, we will provide it.”
But charges in the lawsuit suggest otherwise.
“It takes too long to diagnose their diseases,” said Brenda Castañeda, an attorney with LAJC.“ Whether it’s cancer or something else, it just gets worse the longer they wait.”
The suit says that inmates wanting medical attention submit written requests for screening by a prison nurse, who determines whether or not to assign her an appointment with a physician. The lawsuit suggests that the nurses employed by Armor at FCCW aren’t qualified to fully determine prisoners’ medical needs, to prescribe treatment, or determine the need for an appointment. Prisoners can also submit emergency requests for care, which the lawsuit says are “virtually never honored.”
Inmates claim their best chance for serious medical attention is being referred to an outside specialist, but say FCCW medical staff often ignore doctors’ instructions for treatment when inmates are returned to prison. Cases cited by the suit range from denial of special diets and a lack of treatment for minor infections to severe complications that the women say were dismissed until it was too late.
According to the allegations, a prisoner named Jeanna Wright complained for months of severe abdominal pain and rectal bleeding. “For at least one year,” the suit says, the staff assured Wright that she was “fine.”
Wright eventually saw a UVA doctor, who determined she had stage IV abdominal cancer. She died weeks later.
The lawsuit says that because FCCW has been identified by DOC as a facility set up to provide the most “heightened level of care” for inmates the situation is even more “disturbing.”
Castañeda said similar problems are widespread in Virginia. “Armor provides health care for seven other prisons (in Virginia), and there are other companies like Armor that provide health care on a for-profit basis.”
Turner said the problem stems from a system that puts “profits over people.”
“The terms of the DOC contract with Armor create financial incentives based on cheaper, reduced levels of care,” she said.
“If they don’t spend the money, they can keep it,” Castañeda said. “It’s a twisted incentive.”
Armor deferred to DOC for comment.
Castañeda said the defendants could have up to 60 days to respond to the suit. She hopes to settle the case out of court. “We’re not asking for any money,” she said. “We’re just asking for the women’s access to health care to be improved. We’ll have to wait and see what their response is.”
Tina Ortiz, a former prisoner at FCCW who was released in February and is not part of the lawsuit, said she experienced the effects of inadequate care firsthand. She couldn’t eat the food, she said, which caused malnutrition and health problems.
“Everything is rotten or frozen there,” said Ortiz. “You couldn’t even stand the smell.” At one point, she said, her liver stopped functioning and she became so weak that she couldn’t walk.
“Every time I would tell [the medical staff] something, they would come back with a rebuttal,” she said. “‘There’s nothing wrong with you’ or ‘There’s something wrong but we need to do further tests.’ And then they never did the tests.”
She had a simple explanation for why the system is so bad:
“They don’t care,” she said. “They just don’t care.”—Ryan McCrimmon