Medical Malpractice in Prisons | Can Prisoners File Lawsuits?

Prison is punishment, but how far should that punishment go? Should prisoners expect certain rights and accommodations? Shouldn’t they be treated like human beings? Katherine Anderson (now Newcomb) may have wondered this as she served 17 months at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Oregon, the state’s only women’s prison. Anderson nearly died of congestive heart failure as her pleas for medical help went unheeded.

Shortly after entering the prison in 2007, Anderson started feeling unwell; she had a lump in her stomach and suffered from stomach issues, including nausea and diarrhea. The symptoms worsened over the following weeks. She had bouts of dizziness, blurred vision, fatigue, trouble breathing, and so on. She was suffering from bacterial endocarditis, but the medical staff at Coffee Creek failed to diagnose it. Instead, nurses told her she had the flu or that the symptoms were not something she should worry about. One nurse suggested she was going through menopause (Anderson was about 30 years old at the time).

On October 27, 2007, Anderson was sent to the emergency room at Legacy Meridian Park Medical Center, where doctors discovered a strep enterococcus and damage to some heart valves. They kept her in the hospital for four days, pumping her full of antibiotics to destroy the bacteria that was eating away at her heart valve. She was to remain on the antibiotics for six weeks. Once she returned to Coffee Creek’s infirmary, however, her condition worsened, but once again medical staff wrote off the symptoms as minor inconveniences.

Anderson believed she would die if left in the prison. She started writing to lawyers and trying to get someone in the outside world to help. Finally around Christmas of 2007, Anderson was able to talk two nurses into sending her to the hospital. It’s a good thing she did, because doctors discovered her heart was dangerously enlarged. In other words, she was in congestive heart failure and had been for quite a few weeks. Days later she underwent emergency surgery. She had to have her aortic valve replaced, among other procedures.

Hospital bills for the emergency care Anderson required reached about $130,000. This comes from taxpayers. If medical staff at Coffee Creek had correctly diagnosed the condition or perhaps just taken Anderson’s concerns seriously enough to send her to the hospital, the costs would have been much less. Anderson could have been cured by about $100 woth of antibiotics, and she’d still have her own, undamaged heart valves.

Anderson is now out of prison. She has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and is seeking $2.5 million in damages.

I feel outraged for Anderson as a human being, but I am also outraged as a taxpayer. I am not outraged by the $130,000 in emergency costs; rather, I am outraged that we as taxpayers pay the salaries of the medical staff at the prison, and they seemingly are not doing their jobs or even know how to do them. A little compassion goes a long way in medicine, and maybe the staff at Coffee Creek has forgotten that.