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Crisis in Correctional Care: The Series Begins

There are about 30,000 Virginians in state prisons, and Virginia spends more than $25,000 a year to house each of them, making the Department of Corrections the most expensive agency in Richmond, with a billion dollar annual budget.

It spends $160 million on healthcare, but critics say that care is inadequate, and some inmates could be dying for lack of medical attention.  Another 30,000 people are locked up in city or county jails, and as we'll hear throughout this series, their care is also questionable.

When Bobby Messick was 17, he got his girlfriend pregnant.  To help with her medical bills, the he stole money from his employer - a Dairy Queen in Newport News.  When he got caught, a judge sentenced him to probation, but Messick missed several drug tests after his son was born, and the judge ordered him locked up in the city jail.  Unable to bring medication for his diabetes, Messick feared that ten-day sentence could cost his life.

“They have to get approval from the doctor for them to be able to give you the insulin that you need. I was sitting there for about five hours in booking, because they only had one person working, and my blood sugar went up to 550.  I tried saying something to them, but their excuse is it’s the best they can do.”  

When he was in high school, Messick would check his blood sugar 4 or 5 times a day and gave himself as many as seven shots to keep his blood sugar in a normal range.  A reading of 500 might have sent him to the hospital, since very high blood sugar can kill, but now Bobby had to wait for a dose of insulin from the jail’s nurse.  Over the next few days, he worried constantly, unsure if he would get more insulin in time.

“Deputies would walk by, and I’d try to get their attention, and they would just ignore you, or like they’d say, “What do you need?” and I’d say, “I need my insulin,” and they’d be like, “Okay, I’ll let the nurse know.”  An hour later, nothing had happened, so I’d ask another deputy, and he’d be like, “Okay, I’ll let the nurse know.”

Frustrated and afraid, he phoned his mother, Vickie Pruden.

“My husband and I went down to the jail to take his insulin, and the nurse right away informed me that he would only be able to check his blood sugar twice a day, and I went, “That doesn’t sound right,” and she said, “We do that for every diabetic,” and I said, “Well he’s type one,” and she said, “Well it doesn’t matter.  That’s our policy.”

This report was produced as part of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship -- a program of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.

After Pruden complained to the sheriff’s office, Messick says a guard woke him at 3 a.m. and took him again to  see the nurse.

“My blood sugar was 57, which is pretty low + and the nurse gave me a glucagon tab, and I asked her, aren’t you going to give me more than one, and she said, ‘No one is enough.’  And I said, ‘One is not enough.  I know one isn’t enough - not for a 57 blood sugar.  You’re not going to give me orange juice or nothing?’ And she wouldn’t answer me.  She was just like, ‘You can go.’”  

Messick was able to manage his blood sugar to some extent by hoarding bread from his meal trays and eating cookies a fellow inmate had squirreled away, but his family was worried.  Not knowing where to turn, they called WVTF and Radio IQ, and we phoned the top man at the Newport News Jail -- Sheriff Gabriel Morgan.  He spoke with us for six minutes and 17 seconds.

“That particular inmate is getting everything that they should get.  Without a release, there’s not a whole lot I can discuss.”

Morgan told us a Maryland company called Conmed was paid to provide care to the jail.  A licensed practical nurse, with as little as one year of training, was responsible for more than 300 inmates, and a doctor was on call.  I asked Sheriff Morgan why the city had stopped employing its own medical personnel.

“I’m not at liberty to discuss that at this time.  You called me relative to someone who claimed that they were not getting the proper treatment.  I’ve assured you that they are getting the proper treatment.  I’ve engaged you in quite a bit of conversation relative to this matter, and now we’re going down a different road, and I’m trying to ascertain - where are you heading with this?  I’m sorry if I’m not clear, and I appreciate you taking so much time.   And I’ve already assured you that I’ve discussed this with the mother, and I have personally checked on him last night when you called and this morning when I got in.”

Now you might assume the Newport News jail is just one small operation, not typical of correctional facilities around the state.  But in neighboring Virginia Beach, the local sheriff retired, joined the staff of Conmed and helped the company win a $9 million contract for that city’s jail.  Less than a year later, two families of former inmates were suing Conmed for wrongful deaths.  One of the victims was a 54-year-old diabetic with high blood pressure, sentenced to ten days for driving on a suspended license.  The suit alleged he was given insulin, but no blood pressure medication for four days.

At the state level, about half of all prisoners get care from for-profit companies, and the state’s director of health services gets about 2,000 grievances a year from inmates.

We asked Virginia’s Department of Corrections to talk about that, but officials refused.  On the other hand, Abigail Turner was happy to talk.  She’s an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, suing the Fluvanna Correctional Center and its medical providers.  The suit claims inadequate care has caused prisoners’ health to deteriorate.  As a result, some women -- like 47-year-old Darlene White -- have died.

"She was a severe diabetic, and on December the 20th, 2011 her blood sugar levels were very, very high.  A number of the women prisoners could see her, and kept asking for help, and they reported that later a nurse tried to insert an IV tube, and at that point Miss White was unresponsive."

Another patient, Jeanna Wright, complained to the prison nurse about intense abdominal pain and rectal bleeding for a full year before having a thorough exam.

“She was finally referred to the University of Virginia.  There she was diagnosed with stage four abdominal cancer, and she died in April of 2012.”

Turner believes at least ten deaths could have been prevented at Fluvanna over the last 3 or 4 years if medical care had been adequate. Ten years ago, Virginia’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a report on prison healthcare called Accountable to No One.  It complained of deliberate neglect, unnecessary deaths, botched surgeries and policies that put cost above the health and welfare of patients. 

That report went to every state legislator.  Since then, says ACLU attorney Hope Amezquita, nothing has changed.

“It seems to have gotten worse! We don’t know a lot, and what we do know is not good.”

In future reports, we’ll ask why, but before we sign off, an update to the story of Bobby Messick.  After getting more than a dozen calls from relatives and reporters, the Newport News Jail released him early.  He’s back on a careful medical regimen , working as a dee-jay and spending time with his son.


Virginia CURE  is an all volunteer non-profit organization focusing on the Virginia criminal justice and prison systems, and the people whose lives are impacted by those systems.

Assisting Families of Inmates  has a mission to prevent the breakdown of relationships among inmates and their families by providing regular, meaningful visitation, support, referral and education services. Our services help families and loved ones throughout the period of incarceration and also prepare families for a successful transition when the inmate is released from prison back into our community. Assisting Families of Inmates is one of only a handful of such programs to provide these services in Virginia and across the United States.

Offender Aid and Restoration of Richmond enhances public safety by providing individuals and families affected by incarceration with transition services that support safe and successful reintegration into the community.

Offender Aid and Restoration, Jefferson Area Community Corrections Program works to break the cycle of crime by helping defendants/offenders to be more accountable, lead more productive lives and develop more constructive lifestyles through low cost alternatives to incarceration.

The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated is based in Pennsylvania. The organization works to raise awareness about the needs and concerns of the children of the incarcerated and their families by providing information that is informed by a combination of academic research and the experiences of the families and practitioners in the field in order to promote the creation of effective and relevant policies and practices in public and private systems.

Big Brothers Big Sisters has local chapters that provide a mentoring program for children of inmates.  Inquire with a local chapter on how to volunteer.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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