A Mother’s Experience with a Prison Health System
By Sue Huskins
In late September 2002, my son Michael, who was incarcerated in Billerica, became very sick. A corrections officer called at 6:30 on a Friday night to give me the news. He said that Michael was in intensive care at Shattuck Hospital with pancreatitis, but that I shouldn’t worry; it wasn’t very serious. I asked him if it wasn’t serious, why Michael was in intensive care. He didn’t have an answer, but he told me if I wanted to visit, I would have to clear it through the jail on Monday.
I thought I would have to go through the weekend not knowing anything about my son’s condition, but Michael himself called me on Sunday. They had transferred him to Brigham and Women’s because Shattuck did not have the facilities to treat him. He sounded terrible, but I still couldn’t visit him until I arranged it through the prison, which I did the next morning. My mother and I went to the hospital that night.
I was told that I would have to call the jail every time I wanted to go to visit Michael, but after making a number of appointments, a Lieutenant told me I didn’t have to call anymore; I could go whenever I wanted. Later, I found out from people who knew Michael why he had been so permissive. The word around Billerica was that my son wasn’t going to make it.
Most of the C.O.’s who watched Michael kept him shackled to the bed. This is a kid who was so sick, he couldn’t even sit up. He’d even flatlined once, because of an allergic reaction to a blood transfusion. Due to his reaction, the doctors decided not to attempt to drain the infection from his abdomen. They opted for surgery instead. Before the operation, Michael was extremely nervous—the only other thing he had been hospitalized for was asthma attacks. I sat and talked with him all afternoon and went down to pre-op with him. When they were getting ready to take him into the O.R., the guard gowned up. He said he was supposed to watch Michael in case he tried to escape.
About a week after the surgery, a nurse came into Michael’s room and said something about giving him blood. He said that he didn’t want a transfusion. The guard started yelling at him. He called Michael an ungrateful bastard and said that he (Michael) needed the nurses, but they didn’t need him. I asked the guard if he knew about what had happened the last time Michael got a transfusion. He said yes. I then asked him how anxious he would be to get blood, if he were in Michael’s situation. He had no answer to that.
Michael was transferred back to Shattuck on November 25th. I didn’t hear anything from him over the Thanksgiving weekend, so on Sunday, I called the hospital. I was transferred all over the place until I got a nurse in intensive care. When I told her why I was calling, she handed the phone to a C.O., who told me that Michael was in intensive care because he was too sick to be cared for on the regular floor. He was so sick, in fact, that he was unable to get out of bed to get to a phone. I asked why, if Michael was that ill, they had transferred him in the first place. Because Michael was incarcerated, he said.
The following Tuesday, Michael called me. The C.O. had gotten him a wheelchair and taken him down to the phone. That night, they had fed him for the first time in seven or eight weeks. I asked him what he ate. Meatloaf with gravy, corn, and rice, he said. I was stunned that they would feed someone in his condition something so heavy and difficult to digest. Three evenings later, I got a call from a doctor at Brigham & Women’s. She asked me if anyone from Shattuck had phoned. After I told her that nobody had, she said that Michael had stool leaking into his stomach drains; they thought he had a hole in his bowel or his colon. They were prepping him for surgery, the doctor said. A different doctor called me the next morning to update me on Michael’s condition. I told him about what they had fed Michael at Shattuck. After a long silence, the doctor said they’d had to clean a lot of corn out of him.
Michael was soon transferred back to Shattuck. Visiting him there was quite an experience. As when my son first became ill, I had to make appointments to see him. My first visit was to be on Christmas day at 3:00. I left my house at 1:45 that day, but because I got hopelessly lost (in a snow storm, no less), I didn’t arrive until 3:55. I was told I had missed my appointment; I would have to go home.
I finally got in to see him on New Year’s Day. The C.O. told me that I would be visiting Michael in his room because he was not having a good day. When I went in, my son—pale, bony, and shivering—was lying limply on his bed. What’s more, his colostomy bag had broken; he said he’d been waiting for a new one for some time. Lunch came before a replacement bag, but he told the aide he couldn’t eat because “he was covered in crap.” Eventually, someone came to clean him up and change his sheets. I waited in a room down the hall during the process, which took about 15 or 20 minutes. This time was counted towards our hourly visit.
My next visit came on Martin Luther King Day. This time, I had to wait awhile in the lobby for a C.O. to come downstairs to receive me. The waiting time was counted towards our visit, as well. Once again, I was told I would be visiting Michael in his room, because he had “issues going on.” As it turns out, his “issue” was pneumonia; he was hooked up to a large oxygen tank. The weather was windy and bitterly cold, but Michael’s window was wide open. I flipped out on the C.O., telling him to shut the window. He did so, but not without giving me a dirty “Who do you think you are?” look.
On January 29th, Michael’s sentence ended. I spoke to social workers about getting him transferred to a decent hospital. They said they would help us, but they just strung us along. In February, I became aware they didn’t even submit the paperwork that would allow Michael to get Mass Health Insurance. I helped him fill out the papers and sent them in myself. I also had to submit the paperwork that would let Michael collect disability. Michael never did get transferred from Shattuck. Fortunately, he was discharged on February 25th. I have never been so happy to get a phone call as the one where I learned I could pick him up.