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Access to medical care in prison is a problem
Photo illustration by Teresa Tauchi

The following story is part of PJP's special project, "The Graying of America’s Prisons." For this series, we curated reported stories and essays from across the country to catalyze a conversation about the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of growing old behind bars. Read all of PJP's coverage on aging in prison here.

“One of these days I’m going to blow a rod,” Deborah Boothe, 67, said with a laugh.

She was referring to two metal rods in her neck from a surgery six years ago — a surgery Boothe said she needed long before she finally received it.

We were sitting in the dayroom of Fluvanna Women’s Correctional Center in Virginia, chatting about aging in prison and the lack of health care for people who live inside. Our prison, in particular, has a checkered history when it comes to providing adequate health care. Boothe’s experiences, and the experiences of other women in our prison, back up assertions made in a 2010 class-action lawsuit alleging Fluvanna’s health care violates the Eighth Amendment’s constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. (Although the suit was settled in 2016, prisoners here told The Appeal in 2022 that access to medical care remains a problem.)

I commiserated with Boothe as she expressed frustration over delays, misinformation and poor (and sometimes nonexistent) communication from medical personnel. In one instance, she said, her medical chart had gone missing. While I am 30 years younger than Boothe, and in relatively good health, I’ve experienced similar issues: notes not entered into medical charts, follow-ups not scheduled and complaints ignored entirely.

Boothe arrived at Fluvanna in 2007, when she was 52. Despite being a victim of domestic violence, she said doctors overlooked her neck and back problems during her intake exam and many subsequent appointments.

“The first half of my time here, they ignored everything I said,” Boothe said. “I told them why I had the issues I had, why I needed a specialist to look at me, and they just wouldn’t listen. Finally, I had to lie to them.”

I asked her to explain. “They kept asking if I’d been in an accident, so I said I’d fallen off a horse,” Boothe recalled with a chuckle. “They didn’t want to hear about my history of abuse — that couldn’t have caused my injuries.”

It wasn’t until 2016 — almost a decade after her arrival — that medical staff started tending to her health complications. One nurse in particular, Boothe said, went above and beyond to help her, searching for Boothe’s missing medical chart and eventually finding her chart in a pile of records that were set to be destroyed.

“They had actually hid my records in a back room in a stack of things to be shredded,” Boothe said.

After that came a long journey toward surgery to clean out her “crumbling vertebrae,” as she put it. Boothe underwent an MRI in June 2016 at a nearby radiology center, which revealed multiple problems with her spine. After further consultations and appointments with a neurologist and other specialists, Boothe was scheduled for surgery. (According to medical documents I and PJP editors reviewed, her spinal issues included “severe degenerative disc disease,” which is caused by wear and tear on the spinal disk.) However, by October she still had not been sent to an outside hospital for a pre-operative surgery consultation. 

In December 2016, she filed what’s called an “informal complaint” to prison administration and wrote a letter to the court-ordered compliance monitor at the time. His response from Jan. 2, 2017, said: “I will inquire about the status of your surgery. I agree with you about the inadequacy of the response to your Regular Grievance.” 

About eight months after her initial MRI, Boothe finally had the neck surgery in February 2017. Doctors inserted metal rods inside her, which now extend a foot from the base of her skull down her cervical spine. Boothe opted to skip staying in the infirmary and instead was given a wheelchair and prescribed Neurontin for two weeks. After that she took over-the-counter medication. She received physical therapy as well. 

Five years later, Boothe doesn’t quite have full range of motion, but she no longer experiences pain, numbness, tingling or the fear of falling. Still, her health is deteriorating as she ages. 

“I’m having bone issues, and muscle problems I’ve had forever are getting worse,” she said, adding that she also suffers from osteoporosis. 

Many aspects of prison life are difficult for her now. 

“Steps. The prison layout. The uncomfortable bed,” Boothe said. “I put stuff under my mattress and I still have trouble sleeping. That’s a big thing to me. You spend a lot of time on your bed. Women aren’t made to sleep on steel.”

I asked her about the stress of being in prison, and how that affects her health and aging.

“I don’t think you have enough paper for that,” she said, laughing again. She noted the consequences of being restricted, not being able to go outside when she would like and, conversely, being forced to go outside at other times, like when she has to pick up a tray from the dining hall — an unpleasant experience during adverse weather, I must agree.

She also lamented the lack of access to over-the-counter health supplements, either because the prison doesn’t sell them, as with melatonin and serotonin, or because they are costly, as with many vitamins. On top of that, people in Virginia prisons are paid less than 45 cents per hour for their labor.

“I’m at the age where I know myself and how to treat myself, and they don’t want to give me — I mean, just the simplest things, [like] vitamins, melatonin,” Boothe said. “They don’t want to give us access. I’d pay for it myself if they’d let me.”

Boothe sighed, and then continued: “All in all, I think I do pretty nicely, especially right now where I’m in a room by myself. But that’s going to change.”

Her expression soured at the thought. Once Boothe finishes the special program she’s in now, she’ll move back to the general population and most likely be placed with at least one cellie, who will most likely be younger, given the prison’s demographics.

“I think prisons should have geriatric wards — and not just when you’re sick,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to put you in with a 20-year-old.”

Older inmates like her should not have to be “putting up with the younger drug addicts that come in and want to run everything and don’t realize that one day they’re going to be older,” she said. “You’re too slow for them. They’re like, ‘Get out of my way!’” 

She added, “I’m not trying to get in your way, believe me.”

We were both silent for a moment, remembering what it was like to live in the chaos of the general population, something we will both return to in a few months when we graduate from the program we are currently housed in.

I asked one final question: “Do you think prisons should have an age limit or an age when someone would be released from prison?”

“Yes,” Boothe said, cocking an eyebrow. “In my mind, it’s 65. If that’s when they want you to quit working on the outside, you shouldn’t have to be here.”

That sounded logical to me. Even at my younger age, 14 years of incarceration have taken a toll on my mind and body. And I’m one of the lucky ones: I only have a few years left here.

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.

Mithrellas Curtis is a writer, who strives to transform her life from one of pain to one with purpose. As a peer recovery specialist, she seeks to use her experiences to help others on their own journey to recovery and wellness. She is incarcerated in Virginia.