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Residents Who Alleged Poor Medical Care At Maine State Prison Say It's Now Improving

Rebecca Conley
/
Maine Public
Outside at the Maine State Prison in spring 2017.

Residents of the Maine State Prison say they are suddenly being scheduled for doctor's visits, lab work and other procedures after raising allegations of improper health care treatment. 

In a recent report, leaders of the NAACP's prison chapter detailed the experiences of more than 60 residents who said they were waiting for weeks and even months for care. 

The Department of Corrections is now investigating those complaints, but the NAACP wants state lawmakers to conduct a separate review.

After they publicly voiced their concerns about their health care treatment, NAACP President Foster Bates says he and other leaders of the prison chapter were called to a meeting with officials from the Department of Corrections and Wellpath, the prison system's private health care provider. 

"I thought the meeting was very productive. I thought we came up with some tangible ideas and solutions moving forward,” Bates says.

For example, Bates says they talked about creating a prison hotline for residents to report medical issues and complaints. They agreed to meet once a month to improve communication and to address the grievance process that residents say rarely works in their favor.

"The DOC admitted that the — or acknowledged that the grievance process that we're currently under is broken and it needs to be fixed and that is high on their priority list… And they also want to include the NAACP in drafting up some of the language,” Bates says.

But the most significant change in the prison Bates says is access to services. Medical appointments are now being regularly scheduled.

"I can say as of right now they are calling people up there left and right. The door is swinging off the hinges! And that's no kidding," says Jeff Taylor, vice president of the NAACP prison chapter.

"We're really happy about that, like literally every single day almost all day long people are being called up and people — names who are in the report who we had to redact," he says.

Taylor himself got an x-ray and was scheduled for lab work, something that he says he's been requesting for months. He says a nurse also discussed his treatment with him and what he should expect going forward.

"And she was really, really — I felt like a patient, you know? I really did. I felt like - for the first time ever - I felt like a patient,” he says.

Taylor says nurses who work at the prison are often sympathetic to the residents' plight but hamstrung in what they're able to do. The challenge, he says, has been seeing a doctor, getting certain medications or lab work and accessing specialty care. 

"We really take patient care and good outcomes seriously,” says Deputy Corrections Commissioner Dr. Ryan Thornell. 

He says the department was only made aware of the NAACP's concerns about health care services in late February, at the same time as lawmakers on the Criminal Justice Committee. Thornell says an investigation was launched right away.

"And within two weeks time after that we had initial findings, outlining specifically each case that was presented in the report and medical history of those individuals, follow up care that had been provided and any gaps that may have been identified in that investigation,” he says. 

Jeff Sibley is among the residents whose cases have drawn attention. Sibley has a serious condition that makes him vulnerable to infection and requires a catheter to be replaced every 30 days. He says he was supposed to see a urologist at the end of last year. 

"So, December 31st I was planning on going and all of a sudden I don't go. And I kept asking the nursing staff a couple of times a week. I says, 'When am I going? When I am going?'" he says.

Sibley says his catheter was leaking by the time he was permitted to go on March 4th.

“I get there and then the urologist says, 'My God, what on earth took you so long to get here?' I says, 'Ahh, the prison. I've been begging to come here since December 31st.’"

Thornell acknowledges that the DOC is ultimately responsible for the health care services provided by Wellpath, a private, for-profit company that has contracts in prisons and jails in 35 states. Around the country, Wellpath and its predecessor, Correct Care Solutions, have a long list of lawsuits and other complaints attached to their names. But Thornell says Wellpath has been a good partner in Maine.

"In our time with Wellpath, which dates back to 2012, the Department of Corrections has been able to pull off some very significant, positive health care service deliveries: things like the intensive mental health unit, medication assisted treatment services, Hep C treatment services,” he says.

This past year the DOC settled a class action lawsuit brought by prisoners that paved the way for treatment of Hepatitis C. At the same time the prison system has also been confronting the pandemic. Thornell says Wellpath has helped keep the COVID numbers down. But he says COVID restrictions have also made accessing some medical treatment more difficult.

Rep. Bill Pluecker, whose district includes the Maine State Prison in Warren, says he understands the need to incarcerate people.

"But at the same time," he says, "we have a responsibility as a society and a responsibility as a Legislature to make sure that this is not a punitive situation where they're going in to be tortured.

Pluecker is a member of the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee. He says his main concern is about staffing. A doctor is not always present in the prison.

"And maybe during times of COVID when we need to reduce the people coming into the facility that does make more sense, but my impression is from talking to folks that this has been an issue for years not for months,” he says.

Foster Bates of the NAACP says plenty of residents have told him that they and their family members have written letters to the DOC to complain about medical treatment. And he says residents file medical grievances that can take six months for a response and sometimes go unanswered. They're looking for assurances that the changes currently underway in the prison continue.

"When I sit down with the people in the community, in the prison community and I say, 'Hey listen, we have the Department of Corrections coming into the facility to meet with all these guys, what do you want us to do? They say, ‘Well proceed with the OPEGA investigation because we believe that's going to make a difference for us,'" he says.

OPEGA is the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability that provides independent reviews of government programs for the Legislature. Rep. Charlotte Warren, chair of the criminal justice committee, says she wants more answers.

“We've certainly, as the criminal justice committee, tried to get more information about what's happening on the inside. A couple of weeks ago we spent a couple of hours asking questions. But basically there needs to be an investigation of these allegations,” she says.

Warren and other lawmakers are asking their colleagues on the government oversight committee to direct OPEGA to undertake an investigation just as Wellpath's contract is up for renewal. 

Deputy Corrections Commissioner Ryan Thornell says such a step is premature, given that the DOC only recently got started with its own review.