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“Do no harm,” an ancient and foundational element of the majority of oaths taken today by those earning their medical degrees, is not a promise upheld everywhere. In my California prison, an environment where violence and abuse run rampant, we are subjected to a lack of proper health care. 

Although the medical clinic provides services including checkups, lab work, surgeries, dental and vision care, and even transgender hormone therapy, the work frequently falls short of a medical professional’s oath — and basic human needs.

One incarcerated resident, Ben, who requested that his full name be withheld for fear of reprisal, described a serious situation he experienced in 2022. 

A white, 70-year-old man who has been serving a 42-years-to-life sentence, Ben had suffered from an arterial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that can lead to blood clots, since 2008. In mid-June 2022, Ben took a fall near the stairwell in the day room, hitting his head on a bolt and crossbar that supported the stairs. When he reawakened, Ben was taken to the clinic and given a CT scan. When nothing showed up on the scan, he was released back to his building. 

But within two months, Ben’s cognitive abilities and balance progressively declined.

“I never felt anything wrong,” Ben said. “At my age, I felt some (of my brain function) was faulty anyways.” 

Ben had also experienced falls previously. 

But this one was different. Ben suffered memory lapses, such as not remembering rearranging his work station. His coworker Charles E. said he had to remind Ben of the tasks he had already completed. 

Ben’s cardiologist checked the heart monitor implanted in his chest and found nothing.

On a Sunday in late August, however, Ben’s roommate, Mark M., said he noticed Ben complaining of headaches. During the week prior, Ben had also taken another stumble during dinner service and collapsed over a table. Refusing medical attention, he instead returned to work. He was forgetting the day, zoning out on his bed, and looking like he was in a trance, Mark said. 

Finally, Mark decided to take action. 

With the help of three other inmates, Mark got Ben down the stairs and into a wheelchair. With an officer’s permission, he brought Ben to the facility medical center. The on-call nurse sent them back to their cell, however, saying that Ben could see the doctor during his scheduled appointment the following day.  

Ben’s condition worsened and once again Mark pleaded to get him back to the clinic. The same nurse once again tried to send them back. It took the nurse from the next shift and the clinic’s custody officer to overrule that decision, and Ben was finally admitted to the emergency room, where they immediately airlifted him to the University of California Davis Medical Center for emergency brain surgery. His brain had been bleeding. Had he waited another day, he would not have survived.

Five days later, Ben returned to the prison with 27 staples and a couple of sutures sealing the large cut on the right side of his skull and a hole drilled at the crown.

Ben wasn’t at all surprised by the first nurse’s reaction. Too often inmates come into the medical center with fictitious symptoms and frivolous complaints to gain sympathy and attention.

“I don’t expect a whole lot from” the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Ben said. “They don’t do anything really fast unless you’re bleeding or dying.” 

Ben’s biggest fear now is being transferred to a different facility away from his friends. In prison, getting the care you need sometimes depends on those around you advocating on your behalf when you are too sick to do so yourself. 

“If I die, I would rather be around people who cared about me,” he said. 

Not everyone is as lucky as Ben. Early this October, another incarcerated resident in his 70s succumbed to medical neglect. 

According to his roommate, Jason D., Gary had been dealing with a dry-heave cough the previous few days, which had progressed enough for immediate medical attention. While at an outside clinic, the doctor noticed a mass in his abdomen area near the liver, but he was returned to prison. Gary’s condition worsened. 

Other inmates witnessed his decline too.

Mark saw Gary at the medical center complaining about his abdominal pain and being turned away because he had a colonoscopy appointment the following day. 

“Medical said he was faking and refused to see him and sent him away,” Charles added.

The following morning, Jason noticed his cellmate still gagging and pale. When the cells were unlocked, Gary walked out toward the officer’s desk in the building rotunda. Staggering, he fell to one knee and collapsed in a heap. He was administered CPR but did not revive. 

“Sometimes people are playing hypochondriacs, but maybe they could have paid a little more attention to him,” Jason said.

Jason himself shared a personal account of how the quality of medical care could be improved if only more staff cared about the wellbeing of those in their charge. 

A couple of months prior, Jason had woken one morning with red spots on the left side of his face that later spread. In fear for his one good eye, Jason sought medical attention. 

At the facility medical center, one doctor expressed no concern and was ready to release him, while another doctor intervened, calling it an emergency for possible shingles. Jason learned later that the virus had attacked his cranial nerve which could have resulted in him losing his eye. 

When he reacted badly to the anti-bacterial medication he was initially given, Jason returned to his facility doctor who changed his medication. Immediately, Jason’s infection cleared up.

There are too many stories like those of Ben, Gary and Jason. Prison medical personnel shouldn’t have to be reminded of their duty to provide humane care. It’s their obligation to “do no harm.”

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.

Franklin Lee is a reporter for the The Mule Creek Post, a newspaper published out of Mule Creek State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.