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Amid the pandemic, health and healthcare became part of the national debate. And here at Sing Sing, COVID-19 exposed the many medical inequalities and failures of the prison system, both in policy and practice. Prison healthcare is a failure that must be rectified. 

COVID caught Sing Sing’s executive team and medical department flat footed during the spring of 2020. Or perhaps the predominance of black and brown prisoners brokered less urgency in both prevention and response. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen people of color receive lower quality of care than their white counterparts. 

As a Black man, I’m painfully aware of the Tuskegee syphilis experiments and how African Americans of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were unwilling participants who were victimized by countless medical experiments. It’s just another example of how America was fundamentally built on the backs and bodies of African Americans. Now, looking at the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has had on communities of color, it is even more obvious to me just how substandard my own health maintenance is behind bars and the fair to poor medical healthcare services I’ve always received in the spaces and places I’ve lived in.

Prior to the pandemic, medical service provision was poor here at Sing Sing but I’d never really thought too much about. Since COVID-19 spread throughout the prison, however, I finally realized that medical care has actually declined, going from simply bad to downright inaccessible. 

I came down with the coronavirus months ago as the prison suffered a terrible outbreak. After I was released from quarantine, I experienced symptoms for six months post infection. During the post infection period there were a few days a week in which I felt as weak and sick as I had during acute infection stage again. I signed up for sick call a few times to report the residual symptoms I was experiencing, only to have my assigned provider tell me it was just stress and my symptoms were psychosomatic in nature. 

But I had seen television news segments about “COVID long haulers” and the varying lingering effects of the virus and I kept trying to get help. The message I received from my provider was essentially “quit bothering me with your symptoms.” The minimization of medical complaints is a policy approach in reigning in budgets at the expense of quality healthcare and human life.

It’s a strategy I had seen in the past. In 2018, for instance, I watched a fellow prisoner go to emergency sick call several times in three days, complaining of blinding and debilitating headaches. Each time, he was sent back to his cell with a couple of Tylenols. After the third or fourth day, he stepped out of his cell to go to medical and complain again. He never made it. Instead, he dropped dead on the tier of an apparent stroke.

During this pandemic, there was another man who wasn’t taken seriously until it was too late.

Calvin “Tex” Grohoske was a quiet, mild mannered nerd. He was a pudgy, unkempt person with an easy Texas drawl. If you talked to him you found that underneath the frumpy appearance and soft spoken, gentle demeanor was a cleverly disguised razor’s edge intelligence behind those taped up state issued glasses. 

He possessed detailed knowledge of R.A. Salvatore and the other reigning fantasy writers and if his TV was on he was probably watching the SyFy channel. Tex was also a diabetic who went to medical twice a day for insulin shots. During my final seven days in quarantine, Tex kept his normal insulin schedule. But by late April, in addition to going for his shots, he started complaining about body aches, the lack of taste, smell, appetite and lack of energy. The one thing he lacked was a fever and fever was the benchmark for medical review and testing for COVID-19 during the Spring of 2020. 

Even though he had a pre-existing condition putting him at increased risk, Tex was not identified by medical as someone who needed monitoring. No one even  checked up on him after he stopped going to get his insulin shot because the virus had weakened him so much he could not get out of bed. What finally caught their attention was his neighbor, Mustafa, alerting the gallery officer.

“Twenty-six cell says he’s having trouble breathing,” the officer noted.

Tex left his cell that day in respiratory distress. We never saw him again. Three days later, he died. Both Tex and the man who died in 2018 were lost because of the entrenched policies and bureaucratic approaches that the prison system adheres to. Perhaps, these deaths could have been prevented. But with prison healthcare as it, we can’t know.  

The fall and winter of 2020 revealed the ferocity of the coronavirus as the country saw a resurgence. Thankfully, here at Sing Sing COVID-19 infections have been few during the current surge. But anyone with other medical conditions are finding it hard to get treated. 

In early December, a memo was issued at the executive level of the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, advising of the suspension of in- person doctor’s appointments until further notice. Providers have contracted the virus and with the surge raging presently, the strategy of appointment suspension is unclear. Is there a fear of doctors being vectors for further infections, or is preventing the population from being a threat to doctors the reasons for the suspension? What about the nurses and other medical professionals that interact with the prison population daily? They are still interacting with prisoners. Where do they fit in the equation? 

The suspension of consultations with community based providers make sense, but suspending provider appointments amounts to the suspension of timely medical interventions to any number of potential healthcare issues that left unchecked can metastasize into something serious and, possibly, fatal.

As the conversation moves forward in reducing healthcare disparities, prison populations have to be included in the solutions. Blacks and people of color have historically been discriminated against when it comes to healthcare. That discrimination is only exacerbated when it comes to the incarcerated population. 

Preventative, culturally sensitive, patient centered healthcare and maintenance is not only appropriate, but cost effective as it identifies potential healthcare issues before they become expensive, chronic healthcare problems. If society is serious about prison rehabilitation then reforming healthcare has to be a priority. 

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that prisoners’ health is often an afterthought in society. After all, who cares about healthcare in prisons? The answer is simple. We do and you should too. 


Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Reginald Stephen is a writer incarcerated in New York.