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PLN sues to expose medical neglect in Washington prisons

Seattle Times, Jan. 1, 2003.
PLN sues to expose medical neglect in Washington prisons - Seattle Times 2003

Seattle Times, December 29, 2003

Ex-prisoner is seeking medical-care documents

By Jonathan Martin

Seattle Times staff reporter

Paul Wright's opinion of prison medical care is such that he feels lucky to "get out of prison with just a chipped tooth they wouldn't treat."

The muckraking prison journalist says he has documents to support his dim view: He has the case of the prison nurse who sutured a cut with Krazy Glue, and the pharmacist's assistant who forged prescriptions for his Demerol habit, and the inmate with Hepatitis C who died from being denied medicine.

But he doesn't have names.

Released this month from the Monroe State Reformatory after serving 17 years for murder, Wright is trying to use state public-records laws to obtain the names of disciplined medical providers, and information on any deaths caused by their work.

The Department of Corrections (DOC) disputes Wright's depiction of its medical care and has convinced two lower-court judges that naming names would undermine prison safety.

The dispute may now end up in the Washington state Supreme Court. Wright's lawyers have petitioned for a ruling that weighs the public's right to know against a prison warden's need to keep the peace.

Wright, an ex-soldier, is well-acquainted with court. Aided by a team of First Amendment lawyers, the monthly magazine he edits, Prison Legal News, has battled for the magazine to be distributed in prisons across the country.

And DOC knows Wright well, too. The agency briefly banned his magazine after it published a story about racist corrections officers and had to devote much of one secretary's time to answering Wright's frequent records requests.

"Every (prison) system has jailhouse lawyers," said Eldon Vail, DOC's deputy secretary. "It's part of doing business. There are others before Paul, there will be others after him."

Incomprehensible records

In response to Wright's request in 2000 for medical-misconduct records, prison officials released a 6-inch stack of documents. But so much was blacked out — names of disciplined medical staff, prisoners' ailments, dates, even the members of the Personnel Appeals board — that much of the information was incomprehensible.

Prison Legal News appealed the redaction, first to Thurston County Superior Court, then to the Court of Appeals, losing both times.

Records of state-employee misconduct are routinely released by state agencies.

But DOC's unique task should give the agency a break from disclosure, said Vail. Prisoners armed with misconduct reports may attack or blackmail medical providers, Vail said, or avoid the disciplined providers, putting a burden on other medical staff.

"I can see that the public does need to know we did discipline, and did try to remove (an employee) or correct behavior," said Vail. "The problem with the public-disclosure law is it doesn't differentiate between the public and an offender."

But Wright and his lawyers at the Seattle law firm of Davis Wright Tremaine say public-records laws make no such distinction. The public needs to know if prisoners returning to society got treatment for Hepatitis C, or were exposed to drug-resistant tuberculosis, said Wright.

Michele Earl-Hubbard, one of Prison Legal News' lawyers, said a Court of Appeals ruling in his case makes it impossible for anyone — inmates or the public — to monitor DOC's medical care.

"It's really troubling," she said. "Citizens need to address the care in all institutions. The public should care about whether we're fulfilling our duty to those people."

(Earl-Hubbard and her firm, Davis Wright Tremaine, represent other media organizations, including The Seattle Times, on public-records issues.)

State overspent budget

Prisoners are the only people in the country with a constitutional right to medical care. Washington's DOC overspent a $72 million medical budget by $5 million last year trying to fulfill that mandate, largely because it had to hire expensive temporary nurses to fill jobs.

The medical system had been mostly de-centralized, with superintendents largely deciding if inmates got access to expensive outside specialists. Last year, eager to install a more managed-care model, DOC lured Dr. Marc Stern away from New York's prison system to be the agency's first medical director.

Hiring qualified doctors, nurses and pharmacists is difficult, Stern said, but some, like him, are drawn to the task of treating unusually sick patients in a "challenging" atmosphere.

Disclosing misconduct reports wouldn't hurt recruiting much, he said, "because I'd like to think the people we're recruiting are people who are good and wouldn't be in that category."

Stern said DOC takes medical errors seriously, adopting a philosophy that most are caused by system problems.

"Our first obligation is not to an employee, it's to our patients," he said.

DOC has paid $1.6 million since 1999 to settle medical-negligence lawsuits. Spokane attorney Dennis Clayton has pressed three lawsuits over inmate eye care, including one in which an inmate went blind in one eye after a prison superintendent declined to hire an outside specialist.

Another attorney got a $111,000 settlement last year for an inmate with a heart condition. The inmate was switched from Coumadin to aspirin against his doctor's orders, and without first conducting an EKG to check on the man's blood clot.

"From what I've seen, the approach to the patient coming in is maybe a jaundiced eye, because they're inmates," said Clayton. "I suspect the thought is they're more often than not trying to pull something."

How-to legal advice

Wright's release on Dec. 16, off a 1987 first-degree-murder conviction stemming from a robbery, likely won't end his clashes with DOC.

After moving to New England to join his wife, he plans to continue filling Prison Legal News with stories from prisoner-correspondents around the country.

The publication was conceived as a Marxist magazine but evolved into what Wright calls a "farm report" for prisoners, including how-to legal advice. Most of its 3,500 circulation goes to lawyers and prison advocates.

Prison medical care has been a recent theme. The November 2001 edition was titled "Washington's Island of Deviant Doctors," and other editions have hammered medical care in Texas and Alabama.

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