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Critics say medical care still lacking at Fluvanna prison

At the age of 59, Regina Watkins is crippled with knee pain. Two years ago, doctors said her left knee should be replaced, but the Virginia Department of Corrections failed to arrange for that procedure.

“I am in constant pain now," she says. "I was supposed to have gotten the left knee done first, because it was worse than the right. Now that I’ve been compensating with my right one, now the right one is just as bad, causing me hip pain as well.”

And, she says, the Fluvanna women’s prison is lax when it comes to providing prescription medications.

“I had just come from a visit at UVA, and the gastroenterologist had put me on some medication. Two weeks later I still had not gotten the medicine. I was out of my asthma inhalers for three weeks.”

38-year-old Shebri Dillon, who’s also locked up at Fluvanna, says some things have improved. Prisoners are no longer charged $5 to see a doctor. Inmates no longer have to stand in a long line, outside, rain or shine, to get their medications.

When Dillon and I first talked, dental care was an issue:

“I ended up having to have two teeth extracted, because they would not give me the attention that those teeth needed," she told RadioIQ in 2019. "There is a mass of people here that are toothless and have been waiting years for teeth.”

Now, she says, oral care is good.

“Dental has gotten much better since the last time I talked to you. It seems your impact was profound, and we appreciate it. Dental and physical therapy are wonderful programs that seem to work smoothly. People don’t have nearly as many problems.”

Legal Aid Justice Center
Legal Aid Justice Center
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But the Legal Aid Justice Center, which represents women at Fluvanna, says the prison isn’t living up to the promises it made to a judge six years ago – that it’s still failing in five key areas. Attorney Rob Poggenklass told us inmates are in unnecessary pain.

“The compliance monitor in his last status report says he receives more communication about pain management than basically any other aspect of care.”

And, he says, medical devices are in short supply.

"When folks request something like a wrist brace for instance, people being able to get a wheelchair, there’s just been inadequate response to those requests and delays.”

He claims the state fails to accommodate the special needs of certain prisoners.

“When someone has a disability and needs a special type of treatment – like they need to be on the bottom bunk for instance instead of the top bunk, or they need a certain type of diet, this is an area where the Department of Corrections has not been in compliance. “

And, prisoners report Fluvanna still takes too long to respond to requests for doctor visits and fails to provide adequate care for people with chronic conditions. Dillon fears the situation may never change.

“The medical settlement agreement has been going on for so long. They keep getting found not in compliance, and there’s no accountability," she says. "There’s no consequence to them. The nurses and random people here -- they laugh, because they’re like, ‘It doesn’t matter if you tell anybody, because we don’t get in trouble.’”

The Department of Corrections insists it has complied fully with a consent agreement reached in 2016, but the Legal Aid Justice Center will be back in court this fall – asking a judge to address complaints it first raised in 2012.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.