Prison Medical Care

Vince J. De Maille – Incarceration 101 Program

My Prison Medical Care Story

As a pre-trial detainee at Suffolk County Correctional Center in Long Island NY, I was attacked by a corrections officer because I tied my sneaker during a movement in the recreational yard. I was hit in the head with a walkie talkie and then hit from behind in my lower spine. The blow from behind sent me to the ground in pain. Soon thereafter, because of head and spinal pain, I was sent to a local hospital for evaluation. The hospital only took superficial x-rays of my spine, told me that I was fine, and sent me back to the jail in pain without any treatment. This begins my prison medical care story.

 

After a short period of time, I began to intermittently lose bladder control. The pain in my lower spine started to become excruciating and I started to experience numbness and weakness in my left leg. I repeatedly complained about these symptoms to the prison medical care physicians at the jail. However, the prison medical care physicians repeatedly told me to go away, and told me that the symptoms were “all in my head”. Despite the responses from the jail physicians regarding my prison medical care, I continued to address the same complaints for almost one year without the prison medical care physicians taking any action.

After some time, I was transferred to the custody of the New York State Department of Corrections, a state prison. At my reception facility I complained to the prison medical care physicians about the loss of bladder control, the severe pain in my lower spine, in addition to the numbness and weakness in my leg. I then received an MRI which evidenced a serious spinal condition/injury. Surgery was then scheduled to prevent further damage to my spine and spinal cord. The reception facility, Downstate, afforded me ineffective pain treatment and my complaints of ineffective pain medication fell on deaf ears.

Although spinal surgery was to be scheduled as soon as possible, it was months before I received the surgery. The entire period of time I waited for surgery, my excruciating spinal pain was not treated effectively, and for a period of time, because of my daily complaints, the prison medical care physicians refused to provide any prison medical care at all. This caused me to suffer considerably, causing me to linger and suffer in chronic and severe pain. Although I did not want to have spinal surgery in prison, I felt that I had no choice. Because the medical personnel in prison would not treat my chronic and serious spinal pain, I felt the only way I could alleviate the pain was through the only option I was provided, spinal surgery. If the prison would have adequately treated my pain, I definitely would have put off the surgery until my release which as you will read below would have saved me from many problems. As I look at the situation now, it appears as if I was strong armed to have the surgery.

The spinal operation that I had was a spinal laminectomy/fusion, in which 6 rods were installed in my lower spine to prevent additional movement of the vertebra, in addition to a bone fusion of my lower spine to add extra support, bone that was taken from my hip. Now, in accordance to medical fact, bone takes at least one year to completely heal. And after my surgery, in accordance to my surgeon’s express instructions, and in accordance with medical logic and reason, in light of my bone fusion, I was not to be working or lifting anything heavy or to do anything that increased my pain. Nevertheless, as I came to realize the New York Department of Correctional Services rarely does anything logical.

In complete disregard to my surgeon’s post surgical instructions to refrain from work or painful activity and in complete disregard of medical logic and reason, the prison medical care physicians refused to provide me with “no working/no lifting” paperwork for me to carry on my person to prevent injury. As a result, security personnel, New York State Correctional Officers at the prisons I was subsequently incarcerated in, forced me to work and forced me to lift heavy objects soon after surgery; cracking my bone fusion which subsequently caused two surgical steel rods in my lower spine to crack. Ultimately exacerbating my symptoms and disabling me henceforth, this is in addition to causing some serious medical repercussions, which are described below.

Because I was in very good shape before my spinal injury, I was in relatively good shape even after my spinal surgery; appearing to others very strong and healthy. However, what is apparent is not always the case in life; I was still healing from major surgery, still in daily pain, and was not supposed to be lifting heavy objects and I was supposed to refrain from any movement or activity that increased my pain. Although appearing very healthy and strong when I really was not, was an advantage in the incarcerated environment because it kept away predatory inmates. It was not an advantage when it came to security personnel. In the incarcerated environment, healthy and strong inmates are utilized by security personnel like pickup trucks, to lift and transport heavy things. They are used for any heavy labor that may need to be carried out throughout the course of the day. Therefor, with respect to security personnel, appearing healthy and strong was a complete disadvantage. Moreover, despite my serious post surgical complaints to the prison medical care physicians, the prison medical care physicians negligently chose to evaluate me based on my appearance alone and ultimately caused the failure of my surgery by allowing security to force me to work and lift heavy objects after my spinal surgery.

After the forced labor, my spinal condition became worse. The pain was often unbearable. The pain treatment afforded by prison medical care was ineffective and my complaints once again fell on deaf ears. The prison medical care physicians unreasonably refused to afford the pain treatment that was recommended by my orthopedic surgeon. The prison medical and security personnel continued to force me to work and to lift heavy objects until the end of my incarceration; this was despite my complaints of increased pain and discomfort. It was not until I was released to parole that I was able to learn that I had a serious post surgical injury, despite (having found out later) the prison having knowledge of such injury and that they failed to inform me of such injury, and it was only then that I was able to obtain proper medical care and effective pain treatment. A second surgery was needed to fix the failure of the initial surgery. A second surgery which I was not looking forward to in light of the pain I experienced during the first surgery and the considerable period of healing and rehabilitation.

Furthermore, while on parole I was repeatedly re-incarcerated by parole for frivolous reasons; and during my periods of re-incarceration in both Nassau County Correctional Center and the New York State Department of Correctional Services, I was repeatedly denied the narcotic pain treatment that I was taking in accordance with my orthopedic specialist’s instructions. As a result, I was compelled to suffer narcotic withdrawal repeatedly by prison medical care physicians. Narcotic withdrawal is not very pleasant. It can even kill you.

Nassau County Correctional Center’s inmate health care mechanism is dangerously flawed. Inmates with chronic and serious medical complaints are unable to see medical specialists and receive diagnostic tests. Inmates who are supposed to receive morning medication receive it often in the afternoon or evening, or sometimes not at all. Disabled inmates are inappropriately housed and treated contrary to the law. Nassau County jails medical housing unit is used by security to house jailhouse snitches and protective custody inmates while sick and disabled inmates are housed in the general population where medical care is very difficult to receive. Inmates requesting emergency medical attention will often be disregarded by security personnel, who are an inmate’s only means of communication to the medical department during arising medical emergency situations.

During my last period of re-incarceration in Nassau County Correctional Center for a parole violation, I was maced repeatedly for requesting pain medication which was being unlawfully withheld as a result of retaliation from Nassau County Security personnel because of my daily medical complaints that were a constant annoyance to them. This same jail and it’s personnel “killed” an inmate a few years prior by the name of Thomas Pizzuto for requesting his medication that was being unlawfully withheld by jail personnel. Whether the inmate is mentally or physically ill, if an ill inmate becomes “bothersome” to security personnel in Nassau County Correctional Center because such inmate is in need of medical or psychological attention “abuse and violence” is often Nassau County Correctional Center’s answer to the problem. These are the realities of the Nassau County Correctional Center that I have experienced first hand.

Moreover, if we can back track for a minute, during the first week of my incarceration at Downstate reception facility, while in the custody of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, the mental health department ceased abruptly the anti-anxiety medication that I was taking for months at my prior facility. At the outset of the cessation of this medication, Klonopin/Benzodiazepine, I started to experience severe pain in the side of my head, swelling of my left hand, immobility of my left arm and hand, the shakes, vertigo, motor skill dysfunction, and difficulty understanding the written and spoken word. I addressed these complaints daily with both mental health and prison medical care personnel, both of whom informed me that these symptoms were “normal” and that they will subside eventually. Some of these symptoms did subside eventually, to some extent or degree; however, I never felt the same henceforth.

After a few months in custody in the New York State Department of Correctional Services, after a few fainting spells, a lot of head pain, and a lot of other unusual symptoms, another facility within the New York State Department of Correctional Services sent me for a cat scan of the brain which once again evidenced no problems. After continuing to address the same complaints with prison medical care personnel every day for additional months, the prison physicians unreasonably sent me for another cat scan of the brain which once again evidenced no medical problems. It was only approximately 4 years later, after futilely addressing my serious medical complaints daily and for years, after employing my own medical research and after demanding the proper diagnostic tests, an MRI with contrast, did I receive a diagnosis of a cerebral stroke. Four years of absolute torture. (cat scans can only detect strokes within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms)

In fact, a few months after my first stroke I believe I suffered a second one. I was rushed from disciplinary confinement to the medical unit at Fishkill Correctional Facility as a result of symptoms consistent with a stroke. However, because I complained of visual disturbances, the doctor said my symptoms were psychological and sent me to the psychiatric unit to be placed in a strip cell for suicidal inmates. In sum, I was disciplined and tortured for having a stroke and having very real and serious neurological symptoms.

After my release I also learned that my spine was pulling my brains out of my skull, that I had a Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CFS) blockage, and that I had a cyst growing in my spinal cord that could cripple me in the future. In proper medical terminology, I had Occult Tethered Cord Syndrome with associated Cerebral Tonsilar Herniation/Pseudo Chiari Malformation, Syringomeylia, and a Syrinx.

The neurosurgeon explained to me that my spinal injuries during my incarceration awoke a sleeping dragon, that they created a pulling force on my hind brain which caused my Cerebral Tonsils to drop out (herniated) of my skull into the direction of my brain stem and into my spinal canal. The herniated Cerebral Tonsils causing a blockage of CFS flow in and around my neck and head. The surgeon informed me that the cyst growing in my spinal cord was a direct result of the CFS blockage. Thus, I learned that everything was interrelated and two surgeries were needed to attempt to abate my chronic and serious symptoms. One surgery to attempt to address some of my lower spine, urological problems, and to fix my brain and the CFS blockage called a Section Filum Terminale; Another surgery to correct the failed fusion and to remove the cracked hardware which was a result of the forced labor in prison after the initial surgery.

Not only did the New York State Department of Correctional Services refuse to afford me effective pain treatment for my spinal injury/condition, not only did they cause a serious post surgical spinal injury, and not only did they fail to diagnose and treat my cerebral stroke and other neurological and cardiological conditions for an unreasonable amount of time; the Department of Corrections threw me in disciplinary confinement for continuing to address my serious medical complaints. They locked me in a cell for 23 hours a day for an approximate total of two years, where they ridiculed and tortured me! In the New York State Department of Corrections I was literally laughed at by both security and medical personnel every time I would address my daily medical complaints while I was confined. In the New York Department of Corrections I was often threatened with both bodily harm and additional time in confinement by security if I did not stop addressing my medical complaints and “bothering” security and medical personnel, most often the nurses who were the only prison medical care personnel I had daily contact with. Additionally, I was often and unreasonably sent to the psychiatrist in lieu of the doctor.

The list of serious and life threatening medical conditions that were caused, not diagnosed, and treated and completely disregarded throughout my incarceration is a long one. Suffolk County Correctional Center, The New York State Department of Correctional Services, and Nassau County Correctional Center’s prison medical care personnel often told me that I had no medical problems, that I was crazy. Nevertheless, I knew they were wrong. I knew they were the ones who were crazy; I knew what my body was telling me. Unfortunately, my prolonged disciplinary confinement and the lack of effective pain treatment, in addition to the lack of the diagnosis and treatment of the strokes and other neurological conditions caused daily suicidal thoughts. While in confinement I wanted to hang or suffocate myself, I wanted to drown myself in the toilet, and I often thought about ending it all. Each day was a considerable struggle, but I persevered!

My experience in attempting to obtain appropriate and necessary medical care and treatment during my last period of incarceration was horrible. In fact, I cannot find the proper words to define my experience. Nonetheless, I am not the only sick inmate who has had this kind of difficulty in obtaining appropriate prison medical care and will not be the last. However, I meticulously documented everything that happened to me during this period of incarceration and have been lucky enough to have found the help of a prominent Long Island civil rights attorney, Thomas F. Liotti, who has submitted a lawsuit against Suffolk County Correctional Center and the New York State Department of Correctional Services on my behalf; to redress the wrongs done to me and to help change these sick and sadistic policies employed by jail/prison medical care physicians. I have submitted a federal 1983 lawsuit Pro Se against Nassau County and Nassau Health Care Corporation for the indifference and abuse I endured while incarcerated in Nassau County Correctional Center.

In sum, I believe that it is my duty to do whatever I can to ensure that inmates in the future will be afforded appropriate and necessary prison medical care and to see that sick inmates are treated like human beings, treated with respect and dignity. I would not like to see my worst enemy suffer as I did in the hands of Suffolk County Correctional Center, the New York State Department of Correctional Services, and Nassau County Correctional Center. I am lucky to be alive. however, I am scarred both mentally and physically forever.

As an inmate, it has become abundantly clear to me that although the law protects inmates from being treated inhumanely by prison and jail personnel, in the incarcerated environment it is those who are supposed to uphold the law who violate the law. This is the reality… This is what I have come to know.

Vince J. De Maille
Author, Incarceration 101, The Prisoners’ Code