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You never want to hear the word “cancer” when you are talking to a doctor, and you really don’t want to hear the word when you are talking to a doctor as a prison inmate. It’s bad enough to face the disease when you are a free person who can access good hospitals, doctors, and nurses. But, when you are behind bars, you are at the mercy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the State Department of Corrections. Neither have a good record when it comes to inmate health care.
Having something simple like a cold is absolutely brutal when you are locked up. You don’t have access to over-the-counter medications, so you can’t just pop some Tylenol Cold & Cough when you start to feel under the weather. To make things worse, you have access to limited amounts of toilet paper, so you have to budget what you use to wipe your nose because boxes of Puffs aren’t an option.
When you get sick in prison, you have to fill out a form to see a doctor. No matter if you have a cough or if you are bleeding everywhere, you must fill out a form and go to “sick call.” In my experience during incarceration, once you filled out the form you had to wait for your housing unit to be called to medical for sick call, and then you would have to wait in line (first come, first serve) for sometimes another hour or two to be seen.
No matter what your complaint, the first thing they will “prescribe” for you is ibuprofen. Then, if you don’t get better after taking those pills for a few days, you go back to sick call to see a doctor again.
In some states, seeing a doctor will cost you. So, if you don’t have three or four dollars, you are screwed. And remember, most inmates are paid about $5 to $10 a month for their full-time jobs. You have to be good and sick if you are willing to pay a large percentage of your monthly income just to see a doctor.
It’s miserable enough having a simple virus for a few days, so what happens if you get cancer in prison?
In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:
When a doctor believes an inmate may be facing a cancer diagnosis after they conduct the basic lab tests in prison, the inmate is usually transported to a local hospital for a biopsy and numerous other tests. I should note that it usually takes a long time for a prison doctor to even consider a cancer diagnosis because of inadequate evaluations.
Once a prison doctor does get to the point where he or she believes an inmate needs to go to the hospital for further testing, the prisoner might have to wait for weeks or months for their appointment, as the prison is never in a hurry and the doctors don’t seem to communicate very well with anyone.
When you eventually do get transported to the hospital, you are always in handcuffs. If you are in any kind of pain, you will only get ibuprofen because inmates (as a rule) are not allowed to take any kind of narcotic.
I should stop right here and make it clear that an inmate with a cancer diagnosis is not rare. The BOP and the various state DOC’s have had plenty of opportunities to put together a protocol for inmates with cancer.
A 2009 first-ever study published in the American Journal of Public Health examined the health standards of all prison and jail inmates nationwide, finding high rates of serious illness and poor access to care.
Lead author Andrew P. Wilper, MD, MPH, Chief of Staff at the Boise VA Hospital, Idaho, said the researchers found that more than 800,000 inmates—about 40% of the nation’s prison and jail population at the time—reported a chronic medical condition such as cancer, an illness rate far higher than other Americans of a similar age.
“More than 20% of these sick inmates in state prisons, 68.4% of jail inmates, and 13.9% in federal prisons had not seen a doctor or nurse since their incarceration,” said Dr. Wilper.
Once an inmate makes it through the long and tedious process of getting a cancer diagnosis, the medical treatment they receive will vary based on the facility they are in and whether it is a state or federal prison.
Yes, some inmates with cancer receive surgery and chemotherapy, but it takes a long time and there are a lot of hoops to jump through. It is also very difficult on the inmate because they have to leave the prison to get their chemotherapy if they are being housed in the prison sick ward, and that means being cuffed for transport, which is a horrible process.
Inmates who are battling cancer are usually housed in the sick ward at the prison. If they need extra care, they are kept at the hospital or in hospice care. This means that the inmate is not housed in general population and they have limited contact with other inmates.
The other inmates they do come in contact with are also sick, or they have a job in the sick ward or hospice, so they are generally treated well and with respect. If the inmate is older, and they are an OG, then they definitely get the respect of other inmates.
Just like in the real world, most people behind bars who have cancer receive compassion from othersㅡboth inmates and officers. After all, people behind bars are regular human beings.
Do you think inmates with a terminal illness should get a compassionate release? Let us know in the comments below.
Sources: Cancer Care in the US Prison System https://www.ascopost.com/issues/november-10-2018/cancer-care-in-the-us-prison-system/ How I Survived Cancer In Prison https://www.themarshallproject.org/2018/07/26/how-i-survived-cancer-in-prison
Natalie earned her Bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas, and has worked in television and radio during her career. When she was a 19-year-old sophomore at KU, she got her first on-air job as a sports reporter for a CBS-TV affiliate. In 2013, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the possession and production of marijuana. She was released in 2017. We've kept her last name off of our website so that she does not experience any professional hardship for her contributions.
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