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Institutional Sadism: For Jamie Scott, an $11 Robbery in Mississippi May Carry a Death Sentence

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At the Central Mississippi Correctional Center, Jamie Scott's care is in the hands of Wexford Health Sources, a Pittsburgh-based private company that provides prison medical services. According to information compiled by the Private Corrections Working Group, Wexford's record includes lawsuits by prisoners and current or former employees in at least four states, as well as allegations involving racial discrimination and improper gifts to public officials.In 2006, the Santa Fe Reporter launched an investigation into Wexford, which supplied health care to New Mexico's 6,000 prisoners. It discovered widespread complaints about Wexford's care.

Those who have raised concerns about Wexford include the company's former regional medical director, the former medical director of Lea County Correctional Facility (LCCF) in Hobbs and numerous former and current Wexford medical employees. Their allegations are all hauntingly similar:

Wexford refuses to fill critical medical positions. Wexford refuses to grant off-site visits for seriously ill inmates. Wexford refuses to renew critical prescription medicine for inmates. And, according to those who worked for the company, and some who still do, the company's insistence on the bottom line over the care of its charges causes inmates to suffer, sometimes with lasting, even fatal, results.

The investigation prompted hearings on prison health care in the New Mexico state legislature, and in December 2006, after just two years with Wexford, Governor Bill Richardson ordered the New Mexico Corrections Department to find a new health care provider.

Wexford's reported resistance "to grant off-site visits for seriously ill inmates," is particularly relevant to the case of Jamie Scott, and the potentially dangerous delays she has experienced before being sent to the hospital. The same issue surfaced in a 2002 case in Pennsylvania, where a 26-year-old prisoner named Erin Finley suffered a fatal asthma attack in prison while under Wexford's care. According to the Wilkes Barre Times Herald, Finley's family eventually received a $2.15 million settlement, after their lawyer presented evidence showing that "Finley desperately sought medical care for severe asthma she had had since she was a child, but she was repeatedly rejected based on a prison doctor's belief that she was "faking' her symptoms." On the day of her death, Finley was taken to the prison infirmary several hours after complaining that she was having trouble breathing. A physician's assistant examined her and told the doctor she needed to go to a hospital, "but he refused to see her and left the prison at 2:40 p.m. Twenty minutes later, Finley lost consciousness and stopped breathing," according to the Times Herald. Finally she was sent to the hospital--only to be pronounced dead.

In Mississippi, where Wexford took over health care for the majority of the state's prisoners in 2006 under a three-year, $95 million contract, the Jackson Clarion Ledgerreported in November 2008 that "a search of the federal court system found more than a dozen open lawsuits filed by inmates against MDOC on medical issues." At Central Mississippi Correctional Facilitythe prison where the Scott sisters are housed--the sister of a dead inmate said she watched her brother waste away for months from inadequately treated Crohn's Disease, an inflammation of the digestive tract. "He literally starved," Charlotte Byrd said of her brother William Byrd, who died in November 2008. "We watched him turn into a skeleton." Byrd told the Clarion Ledger that people might lack sympathy for prisoners like her brother, a convicted rapist, but "Even a dog needs medical attention." She said she believes that "If they are doing him that way, they are going to let somebody else die, too."

In fact, Mississippi has one of the highest prisoner death rates in the nation, according to a review of prison statistics carried out by the Jackson Clarion Ledger's Chris Joyner, and the death rate in 2007 was 34 percent higher than in 2006--the year Wexford took over the MDOC's medical care. A December 2007 report conducted by the Mississippi Legislature's Joint Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) concluded that inmates were not receiving timely and adequate medical treatment from Wexford. Among other things, the PEER report found that Wexford "did not meet medical care standards set forth under its contract with the state," and that the company "did not adhere to its own standards in following up on inmates with chronic health problems." When questioned about the report and the high prisoner death rates, the Clarion Ledger reported, Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps "said he is satisfied with the contractor's performance." The budget presented by Epps for the coming fiscal year, which begins on July 1, 2010, shows a request of $37.4 million to Wexford for medical services.

In response to questions about care provided by Wexford, MDOC spokesperson Suzanne Garbo Singletary wrote: "Jamie Scott is receiving quality medical care for her condition. Wexford provides basic medical care for all inmates at MDOC prisons. Inmates are sent to hospitals if the need for hospital care arises." Singletary stated that such decisions are made by the attending doctor at the prison, who is a Wexford employee. Wexford did not respond to requests for comment.

Unpardonable Offenses

Nancy Lockhart, a legal investigator and analyst based in South Carolina, has been working with Evelyn Rascofor several years, organizing a grassroots campaign to secure decent treatment for the Scotts and either a review of their case or some provision for their early release. In interviews last week, Lockhart said that she had helped Rasco appeal to the Obama Justice Department, which informed her that the statute of limitations was up for civil rights claims. They plan to try again, offering proof of earlier letters to the DOJ. They have also organized letter writing and email campaigns to numerous state and MDOC officials, and set up a web site. The Scott sisters' group of supporters is growing, but they have received no meaningful responses to their pleas.

During her recent visit to Mississippi, Evelyn Rasco had the opportunity to confront Corrections Commissioner Christopher Epps in person when she attended a meeting at the state capitol on prison budget cuts. She spotted the Epps, whom she recognized from his photograph, walked up to him, and told him about her daughter's poor health and the problems with her medical treatment. According to Rasco, Epps said that he was getting a lot of messages about Jamie Scott, and that he would do what he could obtain a pardon or clemency for the Scott sisters. He told her that he was "giving his word on this," although he had no power to actually make it happen himself.

The person who could make it happen is Governor Haley Barbour, whose past record on pardons does not bode well for Jamie and Gladys Scott. Barbour, who took office in 2004, was initially known for refusing to grant any pardons. In his second term he changed coursebut only for a particular set of offenders.A 2008 investigation by the Jackson Free Press found that Barbour had pardoned or suspended the sentences of five murderers, four of whom had killed their former or current wives or girlfriends. All five men were part of a prison trusty program under which they did odd jobs at the governor's mansion. Writing in Slate, Radley Balko summarized Haley Barbour's policy on pardons as "show[ing] mercy only to murderers who work on his house."

Jamie Scott's health crisis has also coincided with a protracted struggle between the governor and state legislators over how to handle budget shortfalls. Throughout, the ambitious Barbour, who is talked about as a possible 2012 presidential candidate, has appeared determined to polish his reputation for being both fiscally conservative and tough on crime. With revenue down due to the recession, Barbour implemented a series of deep, across-the-board cuts to state spending in the current fiscal year. Last week the he vetoed a bill that would have restored some of that funding, primarily to education. At the same time, he asked the legislature to put $16 million back into the Department of Corrections budget. "We have the resources to restore funding to our priorities this year," the governor said in a statement, "including law enforcement and corrections."

Against opponents who argued that Mississippi already spends more on prisoners than it does on schoolchildren, Barbour held up the specter of what could happen if prison spending was cut: 3,000 to 4,000 inmates would have to be released early. "The threat of convicted criminals on the streets," the Jackson Free Press wrote earlier this month, "has provided Barbour a rhetorical trump card in budget negotiations."

Jamie and Gladys Scott

Even amidst this kind of rhetoric, it would be difficult to see the Scott sisters as dangerous or violent offenders, although the state of Mississippi went to great lengths to depict them as such. On Christmas Eve of 1993, Jamie and Gladys, then 22 and 19, were both young mothers with no criminal records. They were at the local mini-mart buying heating fuel when they ran into two young men they knew, who offered to give them a ride. Sometime later that evening, the two young men were robbed by a group of three boys, ages 14 to 18, who arrived in another car, armed with a shotgun.

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Over 40 years ago in Louisiana, 3 young black men were silenced for trying to expose continued segregation, systematic corruption, and horrific abuse in the biggest prison in the US, an 18,000-acre former slave plantation called Angola. In 1972 and (more...)
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