September 03, 2006

As an Inmate Dies, Why Not Save a Million Dollars?

Today’s prison medical system is dysfunctional, costly and wasteful, says the writer, a longtime prison inmate. Dwight Abbott, who is currently locked up in Salinas Valley State Prison, offers a practical solution to the problem. Abbott is the author of, "I Cried, You Didn't Listen," first published in 1991 to expose the widespread abuse of incarcerated children. It has just been reprinted by AK Press, and is available at and

SALINAS VALLEY STATE PRISON -- When an inmate’s health begins to deteriorate and he accepts that death is near, the prisoner rarely seeks anything more than to end life upon this Earth with dignity and some creature comforts. Instead, he’s given, as it always has been, meager care and is most often treated no differently from inmates with minor complaints.

Among a number of problems detrimental to a chronically ill prisoner’s existence in a “general population” setting, is the fact that they’re among often rebellious inmates, gangbangers and troublemakers, who create a constantly violent and stressful environment.

There are the bullies who are under the misconception that they get respect by picking on handicapped inmates, many of whom are confined to wheelchairs. Then there are the guards whose sole focus is, understandably, “security.” They’re not trained to care for the growing geriatric population, nor do they have time to pick and choose as they quell daily physical confrontations among the young and healthy prisoners, in which handicapped inmates are often caught in the middle.

There are many inmates with lung diseases such as emphysema, laboring to inhale life-preserving oxygen and are often forced to share that air with clouds of pepper spray.

“I was sitting outside in my wheelchair,” one inmate exclaims. “there was a fight nearby and several guards began to pepper spray the combatants. I lost consciousness and woke up in the hospital; that pepper spray damn near killed me.”

“If we complain we are taken to C.T.C. (medical facility) and put into an empty cell,” a 76-year-old man shared with me.

“All we got there is a blank wall to stare at, as if we are being punished for having the nerve to ask for decent care. After 87 days, I had to sign out against medical advice to get back into general population.”

By so refusing treatment, the above inmate has cleared the way for medical personnel to absolve themselves of negligence should there later be “complications.”

I’m a criminal; I’ve been one since I was a teenager. For this rebellious behavior, my punishment has been to exist nearly my entire life incarcerated, beginning in 1957. Through this time I’ve suffered unbelievable punishment with little complaint. I’m the first to admit I’m not a nice person and that I don’t deserve to be free. Yet, as bad as I am, I’ve never stood and watched another human being suffer, without reaching out and attempting to help -- even those who have been my enemies.

There’s a way to do the right thing here for everyone, and it can have a twofold effect as it will also create the alleged “much needed additional beds to deal with overcrowding.”

Instead of building “two prisons,” as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with a representative of the powerful guards union, CCPOA, would have you believe is “the only way to resolve the immediate crisis,” why not build two prison hospitals? One would be for the chronically ill, the seriously handicapped and the frail elderly inmates, where they would be compassionately cared for as all human beings deserve, no matter their faults in life.

The second prison hospital would be for the thousands of mentally ill inmates currently assigned to nearly every state prison in California. In this hospital they would get the long-term care and treatment they require and deserve, without being taken advantage of by predators on the prison yards.


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