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Cruel and Unusual Health Care

How Mississippi prisoner Jamie Scott's life sentence could turn into a death sentence.

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

On February 25, a small crowd gathered outside the state capitol in Jackson, Mississippi, to push for the release of sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott, who are serving two consecutive life sentences apiece for a 1993 armed robbery in which no one was injured and the take was about $11. Supporters of the Scott sisters have long tried to draw attention to their case as an extreme example of the distorted justice and draconian sentencing laws that have overloaded prisons, crippled state budgets, and torn families apart across the United States. But in recent months, their cause has taken on a new urgency, because Jamie Scott's unwarranted life sentence may soon become a death sentence.

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Jamie, 38, is suffering from kidney failure. In order to stave off further complications, she needs either a kidney transplant or regular sessions of dialysis, a procedure in which blood is drained from the patient through a cleansing filter and then returned to the body. But at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF) in Pearl, where Jamie and Gladys are incarcerated, medical services are provided by a private contractor called Wexford, which has been the target of lawsuits and legislative investigations in several states over inadequate treatment of the inmates in its care. According to Jamie's family, in the eight weeks since her condition became life-threatening, she has endured faulty or missed dialysis sessions, infections, and other complications. She has received no indication that prison doctors are considering a kidney transplant as an option, though her sister is a willing donor.

Jamie's family and legal advisors believe the poor health care she is receiving in prison places her life at risk. The Mississippi Department of Corrections (MDOC) has a provision for what it calls "conditional medical release"—but Jamie is not a candidate, department spokesperson Suzanne Garbo Singletary said in an email, because "MDOC policy provides that an inmate must have a condition that is 'incapacitating, totally disabling and/or terminal in nature' in order to qualify." So Jamie appears to be caught in a deadly catch-22. In order to be released from prison, she must convince the MDOC that her illness is terminal or "totally disabling"—and it seems the authorities won't be persuaded of that unless she dies in prison.  

Since Jamie became critically ill, her supporters have also appealed to Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour to consider early compassionate release. They have received no response—and the prospects don't look good: Barbour has a record of being extremely stingy when it comes to issuing pardons. He is also currently engaged in a budget battle with his state legislature to prevent cuts to Mississippi's prison spending, and the early releases such cuts would demand. According to a local television station that reported on the rally at the capitol, a spokesperson for Barbour said that "Jamie Scott was tried, convicted and incarcerated, and she is receiving her care with the Department of Corrections."

A Sick System

In telephone interviews, the Scott sisters' mother, Evelyn Rasco, described the treatment Jamie has received at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMCF), based on her own observations and information provided by her two daughters. Jamie, who has diabetes and bouts of high blood pressure, said that prison medical staff told her in 1997 that she had high protein levels in her urine, indicating possible kidney problems.

Until recently, however, she received minimal treatment beyond the insulin prescribed for her diabetes. Jamie's physical and mental health suffered last fall when she spent 23 days in solitary confinement (for being found in an "unauthorized area" in the prison gym) and was cut off from her routine of work, classes, church, and occasional visits with her sister. Then, in mid-January, Jamie became seriously ill when both her kidneys began shutting down. She was sent to the prison infirmary and, after a week's delay, was taken to hospital. There, doctors inserted a shunt in Jamie's neck to allow her to receive dialysis through a catheter, and she was promptly returned to prison.

Rather than letting Jamie leave the prison regularly for treatment, prison authorities chose to truck in dialysis machines. About three times a week, Jamie has received hemodialysis in a trailer on the prison grounds—if the machines are working properly, which she reports isn't always the case. At one session, Jamie told her mother, the blood was flowing out of her through a catheter into the dialysis machine—but it wasn't flowing back in, so the treatment had to be stopped. At the end of January, another inmate looked in on Jamie, who was locked up alone in her cell, and found her unconscious. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors told her there were problems with the shunt inserted into her neck. They made adjustments, and she was again returned to prison.

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