Health care issues for prisoners partly due to staff shortage: Report

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Vaughn Correctional Center has 100 fewer officers since last year’s prison siege that claimed the life of Lt. Steven Floyd. Newly appointed Warden Dana Metzger is not letting that slow down his plans to change the culture in the prison.
Jennifer Corbett/The News Journal

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Inmates walk between buildings at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center.(Photo: Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal)Buy Photo

Understaffing of both correctional officers and health care staff is straining the already-burdened James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna, according to an independent review of its health care services.

The review, commissioned in the wake of the Feb. 1, 2017 uprising that left one correctional officer dead and two others badly beaten, found that inmates often receive little to no instruction on the “sick call” process — the only way for those incarcerated to request access to health care. 

The “inadequate electronic health record system” further delays inmates being seen by medical staff, according to the independent review by National Conference on Correctional Health Care Resources Inc., though the report notes that inmates are not being refused care due to the co-pay program.

DOC turns to telemedicine because of doctor security fears following riot

This review was one of many recommendations made by an independent review team of retired Delaware justices who were charged with further examining the events that led to last year’s riot. 

“We took this recommendation seriously and hired the gold standard in correctional health care to come in and interview officers, medical staff and inmates to assess how we are doing and how we can improve,” said state Department of Correction Commissioner Perry Phelps in a statement Wednesday. “We appreciate the validation that our sick call process is operating properly and are committed to implementing changes to expand inmates’ access to health care.”

Phelps and Bureau Chief of Correctional Healthcare Dr. Marc Richman are expected to answer questions about the report at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Some of the review’s findings:

The grievance process is not clearly defined for health care matters.Correctional officer security staff shortage is causing mandatory overtime weekly, which contributes to fatigue and decreased morale. Medical escorts by correctional officer security staff within the facility and off compound contribute to the need for overtime, creating tension between health staff and custody staff. Patients deemed to have medical non-emergencies may not be seen in a timely manner because “independent policies have resulted in a system that allocates services disproportionately to patients who file frequent complaints,” the DOC said in a release.Nursing staff is tasked with addressing complaints that are not related to health care.Long patient waiting room times sometimes result in multiple trips before an inmate can be seen. Seeing pretrial detainees is a challenge due to court schedules.

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In response, the review recommended that the DOC replace the electronic medical records system due to the chronic problems it creates for both inmates and staff. It frequently loses data, according to the report released to the public Wednesday, and is inefficient in helping staff schedule appointments, input new information and renew requests for medication.

Richman said in the release Wednesday that the prison is already reviewing the records system, known as iCHRT, to determine how to best “enhance or replace it” and the costs associated with all options.

“The connectivity issue is being addressed by the addition of dozens of additional Wi-Fi access points that have been installed at JTVCC over the past several months,” he said. “DDOC has made considerable improvements in these areas, and we remain committed to eliminating all barriers to efficiency in providing health care.”

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Steven Sipple was an inmate at Vaughn until last April, when he was released from prison and diagnosed with colorectal cancer on the same day. He submitted more than 20 grievances asking to be seen by doctors but little action was taken. Now he has Stage 4 cancer and has months to live. (Photo: Jennifer Corbett, The News Journal)

The complaints about the DOC’s sick call process are not new. The News Journal has received dozens of phone calls regarding missed health care appointments and unresolved complaints.

Most notably, former Vaughn inmate Steven Sipple said he received inadequate treatment and response to more than 15 written requests for medical attention. Now, he has terminal colorectal cancer — cancer that Sipple and his attorney say could have been prevented had he received proper care in prison.

There is no end to staff shortages at the DOC, which is projected to surpass $30 million in overtime pay this budget year — a 37.7 percent jump over the $22.2 million paid out in extra time last fiscal year.

The conditions that led to last year’s deadly prison riot were blamed, in part, on severe understaffing, forcing administrators to ask — and even mandate — overtime shifts. Yet, despite DOC efforts to curb overtime, massive resignations since the riot have forced the use of more overtime.

The report’s findings and suggestions are “encouraging” to prison advocates like the Rev. Christopher Bullock, a founder of the Delaware Coalition of Prison Reform and Justice.

“The recommendations come from three outside experts, which is encouraging that we had fresh eyes on the situation versus internal folks,” Bullock said, calling the recommendations “on point.”

While previous recommendations to improve Delaware’s prison system have been made in the past, Bullock said he believes there is a sense of urgency because of the conditions that led up to the riot last year that claimed the life of correctional officer Lt. Steven Floyd.

“The Floyd incident really lit a fire under a lot of people,” he said. “It was unfortunate, but I think it also shined a light on what’s really going on.”

This is a developing story and will be updated. Check back with Delaware Online.

JAMES T. VAUGHN CORRECTIONAL CENTER

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Contact Brittany Horn at (302) 324-2771, [email protected] or on Twitter at @brittanyhorn. Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, [email protected] or Twitter @eparra3.

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Source: https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/crime/2018/05/16/report-staff-shortage-vaughn-prison-contributes-health-care-delays/614636002/

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