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Opinion/Editorial: Medical standards still not fully met at Fluvanna prison

Opinion/Editorial: Medical standards still not fully met at Fluvanna prison

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Five years ago, we thought we’d seen a solution for substandard medical care at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. Although progress has been recorded — including through the efforts of a new medical director from the University of Virginia Health System — a recent report still finds serious flaws.

Five years ago, a court ordered the prison to beef up its medical program: Too many of its 1,191 inmates were dying; too many were receiving inadequate — or no — care. The settlement mandated numerous improvements, and required appointment of a compliance officer to monitor results.

Two years into the suit, filed in 2012 by the Legal Aid Justice Center, which has offices in Charlottesville, and by its partners, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon already had seen enough evidence to determine that the inmates’ complaints involved “serious medical conditions” about which the prison showed “deliberate indifference.”

Two years after the 2016 settlement, the LAJC was back in court to argue that Fluvanna was not meeting the terms of the court order, alleging that 12 more women had died since the order had been imposed.

Moon agreed that the Virginia Department of Corrections, which administers the prison, had failed to fulfill eight out of 22 mandated standards.

Now, five years after the settlement, the compliance officer says standards still are not being fully met.

This finding is infuriating, and the stories told by inmates are — as they have long been — heartbreaking.

The present compliance monitor, Dr. Homer Venters, does find evidence of progress.

“Overall, I believe that the tremendous amount of work and review conducted by the prior monitor and the FCCW team has created an environment of improved care and transparency,” he said. “In particular, it appears as if the pace and skill of internal auditing has increased in the past two years.”

Among those improvements are the work being done by the new medical director from UVa, the teamwork exhibited by medical and security staff, and the prison’s “quite strong” response to the COVID-19 challenge.

Among the problems is denial of care due to paperwork problems or apparent incompetence — echoing cases previously documented in the lawsuit.

Vetter cited one case in which a woman was sent to a mental health unit, where staff “attribute[ed] her physical illness to a mental health problem for an extended period of time.” When the inmate finally was sent to a hospital, she needed surgery.

In another case, a woman was denied care because of her physical disability, which staff apparently did not seek to accommodate. By the time she made it to a hospital, she was suffering from “life threatening complications of her chronic health problems,” Vetter said.

In yet another case, a woman was unable to receive treatment because the staff could not find her paperwork. The lack of care was logged as a so-called refusal to receive care.

Vetter notes that problems such as this one likely won’t be solved until the prison updates to modern electronic record-keeping. Currently, medical paperwork is, literally, paperwork.

The Department of Corrections has been trying for years to install a computer-based records system, but has failed several times to find a contractor. It is now on its third request for proposals from vendors.

That antiquated system seems consistent with an inmate’s claim that Civil War medicine is practiced at Fluvanna. She told Prison Legal News that staff refused to believe she had an infection after a tooth extraction. She ended up treating herself by digging out the infection with Q-tips and packing the wound with salt from the dining hall.

Again, with this new compliance report, Judge Moon has warned that the courts’ standards must be achieved.

Again, we agree with him: The state and its prison must fully meet their obligations to the court — and, more importantly, to the women in their custody.

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