Sunday, November 19, 2006

Death sentence for stealing a PlayStation: Texas prison healthcare problems not 'unusual'

Charles Billops, Jr. went to prison at age 17 for stealing a PlayStation and some DVDs from a house in Cedar Hill, a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb. But his stint in the Youthful Offender Program at the Clemens Unit in Brazoria wasn't supposed to be a death sentence.

Even so, that's what it turned out to be.

The state of Texas recently settled a civil lawsuit in response to claims by Billops' family that Charles failed to receive proper medical treatment before he died--from an undiagnosed brain abscess due to a sinus infection--in prison custody. The state will pay $250,000 to compensate for his 2003 death, reported the Dallas News ("Inmate's death: 'Terribly wrong' or 'very unusual?'," Nov. 18), but does not acknowledge any fault.

That may have settled this case, but I wouldn't be surprised to see more such "unusual" cases in the future.

The other day I listened to state officials testifying before the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission that the state was "very close" to providing an unconstitutionally poor level of care to prison inmates. Witnesses and legislators discussed the state's "telemedicine" program, where doctors see inmate patients by video, letting them describe or show their symptoms but not allowing for a full examination. Prison doctors see 60 patients in eight hours using telemedicine systems, sometimes from 4 a.m. to noon, witnesses told the commission.

So let's think about that. At most, assuming docs take no bathroom or meal breaks, and with zero time between prisoners, that would mean prison docs using telemedicine systems spend 8 minutes per patient. Since all that is unrealistic, with 15 minutes per hour for restroom breaks, meal breaks, and time transferring from one to another prisoner, medical visits are likely to be more like 7 minutes long. And your workday, for the doc, starts at 4 a.m.?! Who would want that job?

Sen. Bob Deuell from East Texas, who is a medical doctor, sounded skeptical of the telemedicine system. He questioned during the Sunset hearing how high the quality of care could be for patients who only saw their doctor that short a time and only over a video feed.

To be clear, Mr. Billops' care wasn't shortchanged because of telemedicine. Indeed, telemedicine would have been an upgrade in his case. Even though he "lost 52 pounds in less than 100 days in prison," reported the News, he "never saw a doctor." Still, his story seems to fit into the pattern of minimalist care described in the hearing as common practice for Texas prisons.

California's prison health system last year was essentially put into receivership under direct control of a federal court due to its poor medical care, witnesses told the Commission, and officials expressed fears at the Sunset hearing that Texas might be subject to similar litigation. This case makes you understand why.

Charles Billops, Jr. would be 21 years old if he were alive today, with his whole life ahead of him. Nothing about his juvenile crimes justifies what happened to him once he was in the state's custody. His death should be a wake-up call for the state, and certainly for the 80th Legislature.


John D. McLauchlan said...

Somehow 250K seems to me woefully inadequate compensation.

Anonymous said...

We've just had to deal with medical care in TDCJ. My hubby-to-be (in 3 weeks!!!) has just had a hernia fixed. I am absolutely amazed to hear that just 2 1/2 hours after waking from the general anaesthetic, he was given a full meal (which he couldnt eat all) and then made to walk to a holding cell on a lower floor and wait there for 5 hours for the chain out. The time before that he was there (2 weeks earlier, same procedure) he was starved for 48 hours before being told they couldnt operate and were sending him back to Estelle. And as inmates are not allowed to take stationary with them, he spent 3 weeks without being able to tell anyone on the outside what was happening.

It was 'only' a hernia op. Had it been something more serious, or not a planned procedure, I hate to think what might have happened. Oh and he got the hernia after he entered TDCJ.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps (and I accept I may get yelled at for suggesting this) if TDCJ/Medical staff were less keen to diagnose everyone with Bi-polar disorder (what was wrong with the term manic depressive?) and stop handing out suppressant drugs like sweeties (possibly to keep the inmates compliant, but I dont know), then the cost of medical care would be a little less for the system?

Its madness over here too though: last week several UK inmates were granted compensation by the government because HMPrisons withdrew their methodone treatment when they entered prison (and put them on to other programmes, but that's not the point). The inmates brough a legal suit saying that HMP had infringed their human rights by witholding treatment, and the government settled out of court. Strangely, I dont remember reading anywhere that anyone had a legal right to methodone (its a heroin substitute).

Anonymous said...

My brother has turned down TDCJ "health care" for his eyes after seeing how many inmates have been blinded by botched eye surgeries. Funny how the media isn't interested at all, isn't it??