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Activists target medical neglect in Mass. prisons

State vendor has long record of ignoring pressing medical needs

Anna Lamb

Organizers and advocates from the DeeperThanWater Coalition — a coalition of currently and formerly incarcerated organizers, their loved ones and prison abolitionist organizations in Massachusetts — came together virtually last Friday to demand an end to what they say is medical neglect in state prisons.

In particular, the group is calling for the state to not renew its contract with the private health care company Wellpath when it expires next summer.

“The constitution requires prison officials to provide adequate medical care to persons incarcerated in state and federal prisons. We’re concerned about people in Massachusetts state prisoners not receiving the medical care that they’re legally entitled to,” a DeeperThanWater spokesperson said Friday.

Wellpath, formerly known as Correct Care Solutions, is a billion-dollar company that provides contracted medical care to prison facilities across the country. It has previously come under fire for its inadequate care to inmates — documented extensively in a 2019 CNN investigation in which internal documents and emails, medical records, autopsy reports, audits and interviews with more than 50 current and former employees showed a prioritization of cost savings over quality care.

CNN’s investigation, which looked at complaints at nearly 120 locations in 32 states, found deaths and other serious outcomes could have been avoided.

In Massachusetts, coalition members have pointed to incidents of neglect reported by incarcerated residents, including the death of Roger C. Herbert, an inmate at MCI-Norfolk who died of cancer after reportedly complaining of health problems for months to no avail.

His niece, Sophia Bishop Rice, turned to activism in the wake of his death. She said her uncle had displayed signs of jaundice and was given aspirin as a treatment. In turn, after Herbert collapsed in the shower, Bishop Rice said she threatened to sue the city over her uncle’s treatment, and prison officials sought additional care at the Shattuck Hospital in Boston.

“Shattuck hospital contacted me and said that he has cancer and I said, ‘Well, is he getting chemo?’ And they said, ‘No, he has three weeks to live,’” Bishop Rice said to those in the Zoom meeting.

“Had he received the adequate care from the employees at Wellpath, he might still be here today, or at least he would have been able to have medical release so that he could come and be here with us in his last moments,” she added.

A March report by WBUR highlighted the rarity of Massachusetts inmates being allowed to go home to their families in scenarios of terminal illness. The report shows that less than 10% of applicants receive medical parole.

In addition to Herbert’s story, others shared their own experiences with Wellpath. Ronald Leftwich, an inmate at MCI-Norfolk, said that emergency surgery needed for his glaucoma to prevent blindness was severely delayed, despite diagnosis from doctors.

“Wellpath never scheduled the surgery. Even after I inquired numerous times as to what the issue was with surgery, which I needed to have done immediately,” Leftwich said. “It was not until a friend of mine in the community notified the commissioner’s office, more than a year and a half later, did I get the surgery that I needed in my left eye.”

DeeperThanWater also used the opportunity to highlight results of a recent survey the group conducted. The survey had 141 respondents, mostly at MCI-Norfolk, which has continued to come under fire for its treatment of ill and aging residents, with reports revealing water with elevated manganese in its facilities and reports of mold and declining food quality during the pandemic.

The survey shows bleak conditions in the prison, with 79% of respondents reporting having an obvious medical condition that is being ignored by medical staff. Of those who did get treatment, only 25% of those with a recommended treatment plan reported that it is being followed by medical staff at their institution.

In the WBUR report looking at medical parole for sick inmates, a spokesperson from the Department of Corrections defended the performance of the health care contractor.

“Qualified medical professionals employed by our medical service provider, Wellpath, approach all clinical decisions with compassion and are guided by their expertise,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

To end last week’s meeting, coalition members said they are demanding that Massachusetts free all incarcerated people with medical conditions so that they may seek care in their communities; invest in community-based infrastructure for healthy re-entry; and in the meantime, cancel the contract with Wellpath and replace it with a public entity to create greater transparency and accountability.

Wellpath’s five-year contract is set to expire June 30, 2023.

Massachusetts correctional system, Massachusetts state prisons, prisoner health care, WellPath