ORLANDO – After 16 years working in the state and federal prison system, retired Lt. Garry L. Jones still has some vivid memories of taking inmates to the system’s clinic for medical treatment.
Most of those memories, he added, are pretty horrific.
“Out of 16 years with the state and federal system, I have seen a lot,” he said. “I was involved with one incident we had to respond to. We thought a woman was hyperventilating. The physician’s assistant told her to breathe hard into a paper bag.
“But she was not hyperventilating,” he added. “She was having a heart attack. He kind of hastened her death trying to get her to blow into that paper bag.”
It’s a painful incident to recall, Jones said, although sadly it wasn’t a unique experience.
“I’ve seen inmates die before my eyes,” he said.
Florida’s Legislature recently voted to defund the state’s Correctional Medical Authority, an independent agency created in 1986 in response to litigation filed against conditions within the state’s prisons. The agency, which just shut down, used to send workers to visit the state’s prisons, evaluating whether they were providing constitutionally adequate health care.
Jones, who now lives in Atlanta, is a retired lieutenant with the Federal Correctional Institute in Tallahassee. After retiring, he formed Advocate4Justice, a non-profit group committed to promoting a more humane treatment of inmates.
Jones said medical care for inmates suffered devastating cutbacks in the years he worked in the system. These cuts, he said, are shortsighted and a mistake.
“Once you are in prison and a ward of the state, you have to make sure the inmate gets adequate hygiene and adequate nutrition in their food — and adequate health care,” he said. “They are already neglecting the prisoners in the budget. Because of the budget cuts, inmates are dying, and the system is not catching these diseases in time.”
All too often, Jones said, inmates had to fake a serious illness just to get seen at the clinic.
“A lot of inmates put in a cop out,” he said. “It’s something you write to the department medical staff so you could be seen. If you’re dying of a heart attack or something like that, they will see you. Otherwise, you will not be seen. What the inmates would do was pretend they would be having a heart attack so they could be seen. Inmates used to be in the dorm for two or three days before the medical staff would see them. The medical staff have a caseload, and they could have 700 people on their caseload. There would be one physician’s assistant for over 1,800 inmates, so it’s impossible to see all the inmates who need treatment.
“As a lieutenant, I used to have to step in and demand the medical person see this inmate,” he added. “I took disciplinary against some of the medical staff for not seeing the inmates on time.”
Cutting back on prison medical services, Jones said, only ensures that inmates will continue to get sick – and to spread their illnesses amongst one another.
“Why are inmates going in healthy and coming out almost on their death bed?” he asked. “To cut back on the budget, that’s going to make it worse.”
Jones said he frequently witnessed instances where medical staff got hired after they were certified in other counties – but not in the United States, which made it hard for them to find jobs at local hospitals and medical care center, but not necessarily within the prison system.
“Most of the people working inside the prisons, they’re not able to get their jobs on the street,” he said. “They are certified over in Mexico or someplace like that, but they’re not certified in the United States. It’s easier for them to get a job in the prison system than to get a job on the streets. Some of them are lazy. You have to take every situation seriously. You can’t afford not to take every situation seriously.”
Jones recalled one incident where “an inmate was having back pains for month, and they told her, ‘You’ve just got gas and stuff.’ She just got worse and worse, and they finally took her to the hospital. That’s when they found out that inmate was eaten up with cancer. These inmates don’t get proper medical care, based on the budget, and that they’re short staffed. They just don’t care.”
It’s not clear what will happen to CMA. Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the bill to eliminate the independent agency, but legislators did not provide any funding for it, so the program shut down last week.
The agency’s advocates are calling on the governor to find another way to come up with the $700,000 needed to get CMA operating again. Supporters like state Sen. Arthenia L. Joyner, D-Tampa, are also promising they’ll ask lawmakers to reinstate the funding next year.
If the state of Florida wants to save money, Jones said, a better solution would be to incarcerate fewer people, particularly those who have committed nonviolent crimes.
“It’s taking too much to incarcerate inmates,” he said. “We need to bring back federal parole. Inmates don’t have anything to look forward to. If you bring back federal parole, that’s an incentive for an inmate to improve their conduct. A lot of people don’t need to be incarcerated. It’s costing too much. And they’re cutting back on health care like crazy, and it’s gotten worse since I left the system.”
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