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Dispatches from the Inside: Lack of federal supervision leaves holes in prisoner healthcare


Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).
September 21, 2012

Recently, the State of California requested that federal oversight of its prison healthcare be terminated. As justification the state cited all of the improvements it's purportedly made in its existing facilities and touted the expansion of facilities it's recently built or developed. It looks good on paper, but reality is something different.

I can't speak to improvements in services for most California prisoners, but I can relate my own experiences with this new and improved healthcare model. Several months ago it was reported that 15,000 Americans born between 1946 and 1964 died due to Hepatitis C infections during an eight year study period. That was 2,000 more deaths reported due to HIV/AIDS during the same period. At the end of an article I wrote on the subject I state my intention of getting tested.

Well, that's just what I did. I filled out a medical request slip and submitted it. On it, I informed medical personnel that I had previously been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and that I hadn't been tested in several years. 

About two weeks later I was ducated to medical. (A ducat is an official pass.) I was seen by a doctor and blood was drawn. It took about a month for the results to come back; not an unreasonable amount of time. At that time I was reeducated. This time, after cooling my heels on a bench for about two hours, I was called into medical and seen by the same doctor. She informed me that, yes, my blood test indicated I did have Hepatitis C. But I already knew that and had informed them of the fact on my original medical request. I explained again that I wanted to know what my enzyme count was, which would indicate how much damage the virus was causing.

"Oh", the doctor replied, digging in my file for a copy of the original request. Sure enough, it was right there, in non-ambiguous English. This snafu necessitated another round of blood drawing for the correct test. Since I'm fastidious about such things, I recorded the date: April 5th. 

I waited another month to be called back to medical for these results, only to learn they were for the first test once again. They offered to take blood a third time, but I declined; giving it up as a lost cause. I don't subscribe to the "Bang your head against the wall repeatedly and expect a different result" theory. I put this behind me and went about my life: such as it is. 

On September 18th, I was handed a ducat to appear at medical the next day. Since I hadn't put in a request, I was a little perplexed, and frankly incredulous that it might be my long-lost test results. Well it was. After arriving, the doctor informed me that the virus was virtually undetectable, and so was going no harm to my liver. She didn't offer any reason why it took so long to get the results back, but she did warn me that I could be reinfected should I participate in any risky behavior. I promised her that I wouldn't. 

All that only look slightly more than six months. What I keep thinking is, what if my disease had been insidious when I first sought testing? How much more would it have progressed in the time it took to get the correct results of what should have been a simple procedure?

Judging by this episode, I think the federal court made the right decision when it declined to give full control of the prison medical system back to the state. I don't expect perfection, but even though in my situation deserve competent medical treatment.