Healthcare in Prison

With the COVID-19 crisis, there is a lot of attention being given to the role that healthcare workers play within our society. In the WA DOC the medical department is universally considered to be useless and harmful. However, the nurses get mixed reviews based on who we talk to and specifically which nurse we are talking about. Most of this stems from the rules that the DOC imposes on the people of the medical department. In the most extreme of situations, incarcerated people do not get sent to a hospital until they have a foot in the grave. A person has to be unresponsive, bleeding out, or at a similar level of crisis before the DOC considers calling an ambulance.

Before that point, a person has to have difficulty breathing, be bleeding fairly badly, be unable to stand/walk or have flu-like or covid-19 symptoms to declare a medical emergency for immediate medical attention from DOC medical. Otherwise we are told to send a kite.
If a nurse or doctor actually gives an incarcerated person the necessary care before they reach this level of crisis then the staff member who did so is often subject to punishment by the WA DOC.

Two examples of this immediately come to mind. A friend of mine at WSR who permanently has to use a catheter because of complications from a surgery he had years ago was being issued the wrong kind of catheter and was being told he had to make each set of catheter supplies last two weeks. This is DOC policy. You take what they give you and what they give is always insufficient. Well, a nurse who was watching his health deteriorate decided to order the correct catheter supplies and give them to him more often to try and clear up his bladder infection. She got fired.

The other is when, two years ago, I got the norovirus, a very nasty stomach bug. When I was puking every 15 minutes and critically dehydrated, the c/o’s were threatening to give me an infraction for declaring a “false medical emergency” and write up two nurses for being “compromised” because they were trying to give me medical care. Thankfully the doctor showed up and told the c/o’s to stuff it and had me moved to the hospital floor for quarantine and observation. If the doctor hadn’t checked up on me personally and instead had left it in the hands of the nurse practitioners like she was supposed to, then the c/o’s would have sent me back to my cell without treatment.

Most of the medical staff here want to help incarcerated people, but they can’t because if the do the right thing, the human thing, they will be fired.

The biggest reason I was able to get HRT three years ago is not because it was deemed medically necessary. It was deemed necessary two years prior to that when they gave me a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. The reason I was finally given HRT is because my mental health provider pit in her recommendation for me to get it, then went on maternity leave. She used that time to go hunting for a different job. My primary care provider, a nurse practitioner, was already planning on quitting over the WA DOC’s treatment of people with diabetes. With both of them not having to worry about the consequences of doing the right thing, they were able to recommend me for HRT.

Suffice to say incarcerated people have a complex relationship with the prison’s medical department. We appreciate the medical staff who do what they can, but hate the rules and regs which prevent them from giving us the care we so desperately need.


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