Michigan Judge Threatens $2 Million Fine for Inadequate Prison Health Care

December 08, 2006

The American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project and two Ann Arbor civil rights attorneys, Patricia Streeter and Michael Barnhart, today lauded a ruling by a Michigan judge calling for improvements to deficient prison health care.

Michigan prison officials were found in contempt of previous orders to fill medical staff vacancies to provide basic care to prisoners.  If these orders are not followed within the next 120 days, prison officials face a $2 million fine.  Judge Richard Alan Enslen further ordered that an office for an independent monitor must be put in place on prison grounds to oversee improvements to medical care.

"We are especially pleased with the court's decision to order a monitoring office," said Elizabeth Alexander, director of the ACLU National Prison Project.  "Prison health care providers are not capable of running a functional program on their own."

In issuing his opinion, Judge Enslen expressed his deep dissatisfaction with the prison health care system in Michigan.  "To explain this matter in the vernacular, a prisoner who receives a sentence of 2-10 years, deserves to do 2-10 years," he wrote.  "What he does not deserve is a de facto and unauthorized death penalty at the hands of a callous and dysfunctional health care system that regularly fails to treat life-threatening illness."

Judge Enslen's opinion cites the case of a prisoner who reported severe chest pains and was scheduled for a 30-day consult.  Apparently lucky to have survived, the prisoner was seen more than 30 days later by medical staff and found to have 70 percent blockage of the left coronary artery with narrowing in the right coronary artery as well.

The opinion details another case of a prisoner who reported a potentially cancerous mole in June 2005.  Due to insufficient follow up, it was not removed until January 2006, when it was a bleeding, black-red mass determined to be malignant melanoma.  A biopsy in April 2006 showed that the cancer had spread during the time this prisoner was not treated.

Judge Enslen noted that deficiencies in the health care system also contributed to the August 2006 death of a mentally ill prisoner, whom the ACLU calls "TS" due to a court order.  An autopsy released last month reported that TS died from "hyperthermia and complications" four days after he was put in restraints during a heat wave.

Attorney Patricia Streeter welcomed the court's ruling.  "Improvements to the Michigan prison health care system are long overdue," she said.  "Deficient medical care has already caused too many deaths."

In another significant development this week, the Michigan Department of Corrections announced that the National Commission on Correctional Health Care would conduct the independent review of prison health care ordered by Governor Jennifer Granholm.  The current president of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care is also the director of medical services for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"This appears to be a direct conflict of interest," said the ACLU's Alexander.  "We question whether oversight will come from a review done by the very person who runs the failing program."

Judge Enslen's order and opinion, which were issued late yesterday, can be found online at: www.aclu.org/prison/medical/27644lgl20061207.html

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