Crime & Justice

California inmates still suffer from lapses in prison medical care

The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California
The California Institution for Men prison fence is seen on August 19, 2009 in Chino, California
Michal Czerwonka/Getty Images

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Changes ordered by a federal receiver have brought better doctors and better care to inmates in California state prisons. But, as KPCC reports, inmates continue to suffer from misdiagnosis and delays in treatment.

Two years ago, Frank Lucero was an inmate at the California Institution for Men in Chino serving time for a parole violation. For several years, he’d gotten care for glaucoma in his left eye.

Attorney Ron Kaye says to get that care at Chino, Lucero followed the prison procedures to see a doctor.

"He was complaining that he was having nausea, pressure, headaches," Kaye said.

For four months, Lucero couldn’t get medication for his glaucoma. The prison eventually approved a visit to an ophthalmologist, but then rescinded it. Lucero appealed. The prison’s chief medical officer, Dr. Muhammad Farooq, denied the appeal.

Kaye said his client exhausted all the prison's procedures for getting treatment.

"Essentially he was screaming on paper, 'Give me my necessary medical care!' And as a result of being ignored, the glaucoma manifested into an acute and serious stage and his eyeball exploded."

After the swelling went down, doctors removed what was left of Lucero’s eye. Now he’s suing the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for willful neglect. The case goes to trial in federal court next year. A spokeswoman for Corrections said the Department could not comment on on-going litigation.

Farooq says Lucero got “appropriate care” in a “timely manner.”

But Kaye says what happened to his client resulted from problems that have plagued California prisons for decades.

"There’s no record keeping in a system that’s ripe for letting people fall through the cracks," Kaye says.

Medical lapses blamed on shoddy record keeping

Federal receiver Clark Kelso says shoddy record keeping contributes to medical lapses in state prisons. Most records are kept on paper, not in a computer. They can lag behind inmates by weeks – and when they do arrive, they’re often incomplete.

"It's a mess," Kelso says.

His staff estimates that statewide, prisons have amassed 25,000 inches of unprocessed inmate medical records.

"They’ve been generated but they just haven’t made it to an inmate’s file, which means they’re kind of useless," Kelso says.

Inmate found 'unresponsive' in cell

And in some cases those missing records can lead to deadly results.

At one prison in 2008, doctors prescribed medicine for a 21-year-old inmate with asthma. But when he transferred to a different prison, the medical record of his diagnosis wasn’t transferred.

He waited a couple weeks to see a doctor for a new prescription. On the day of the appointment, guards found the inmate “unresponsive” in his cell.

Some inmates say prison doctors and nurses don’t believe them when they say they’re sick.

Inmate recalls near-death experience

William Furr, an inmate at the prison in Lancaster, says that suspicious reaction almost cost him his life last year.

In a phone interview from prison, Furr says, "I understand this is prison and people fake stuff to try to get pills, but mine wasn’t pain medication, it wasn’t something you could get high on. It’s something I have to take for the rest of my life, and they know it."

Furr, 32, needs a blood thinner to prevent blood clots in his leg.

Prison doctors tested the inmate's blood once a week to make sure the blood thinner was working.

But he says nurses didn’t give him daily medicine like they were supposed to, so his tests came out wrong. The results prompted a prison doctor to boost Furr’s blood thinner dosage. For five days, he got a double dose.

"I started noticing bleeding when I used the restroom," Furr recalls. "My gums would bleed. My nose would bleed. So I filled out a medical slip."

On it, Furr wrote, “I am starting to bleed for no reason.”

He waited 11 days for a response, then asked the staff on his ward for help.

"I stopped the nurse," Furr says, "and she said if I had been bleeding that way, I’d already be dead – so I must be lying."

Finally the sergeant on Furr’s cell block sent him to the prison medical clinic.

"Once they seen my urine in a cup and seen how dark the blood was, they immediately rushed me to Lancaster Community Hospital."

Furr said doctors there determined his stomach was full of blood.

"They say I was hemorrhaging out of my kidneys and stomach area."

Furr spent seven days in a hospital.

An internal investigation at Lancaster prison found that staff failed to follow guidelines. The Federal Receiver's office also investigated Furr’s case and “took corrective actions and resolved the issue.”

Steve Fama, an attorney with the Prison Law Office, which sued California over poor prison medical care – says he reports about one such near-death incident a month to the federal receiver — and about 60 other lapses in care that he calls "outrageous but not deadly."