Dying to Get Out

Some inmates tell horror stories about healthcare at the women's prison in Vandalia. Some didn't live to tell their tales.

In 1995 Stephanie Rane Summers found herself, once again, standing before a Missouri judge. Not only had she forged two checks, the 45-year-old grandmother had done it while on probation for a 1989 conviction for doing the same thing. Present in the Jasper County courtroom in Joplin along with Summers was her older sister, Sara Ann Gilpin. Ever since their baby sister Lois Kay died when they were teenagers, Gilpin told the judge, Summers hadn't been the same. Now their mother was dying from breast cancer and she asked the judge to be merciful. Instead Summers got two twelve-year sentences -- one for each check -- to run consecutively. The first time she'd be eligible for a parole hearing would be April 1999.

Almost as soon as Summers was sent to the women's prison in Chillicothe, her health began to deteriorate. In December 1995 she was taken to Capital Regional Medical Center because she couldn't catch her breath. Lab tests showed that her white blood cell and platelet counts were low, so a doctor at the medical center recommended an infectious-disease screening. The screening wasn't done.

Her health problems continued. Gilpin says that on at least three occasions during the following year, doctors repeated the recommendation for an infectious-disease screening, to no avail. By early 1997 Summers was vomiting blood and bleeding from the rectum. Gilpin says that in August of that year, her sister was finally tested for infectious diseases. The diagnosis: liver disease from hepatitis B and C.

Polly Becker
The last time Stephanie Summers (seated) saw her sister Sara Ann Gilpin (left) and her daughter Beverly Walker (right) was in May 1998, three months before she died
The last time Stephanie Summers (seated) saw her sister Sara Ann Gilpin (left) and her daughter Beverly Walker (right) was in May 1998, three months before she died

According to Gilpin, in early 1998 a doctor at a medical center in Chillicothe recommended, again to no avail, that Summers be placed on a waiting list for a liver transplant. In March of that year a Chillicothe prison physician addressed a memo to the state's Board of Probation and Parole, noting that Summers suffered from "multiple disorders, including chronic asthma, and end stage liver disease with cirrhosis. She required Lasix to flush the excess fluid from her body, and the doctor said she was showing early signs of encephalopathy, a side effect of cirrhosis that damages the brain.

"She will need full time infirmary care in the near future," the prison doctor concluded. "It is for this reason that I would like you to consider her for a medical parole."

In her own memo on the topic, a parole officer offered a different opinion, noting that the prison staff had reported "observing Summers on the yard and in the bay area of her dorm performing daily functions, as would any healthy inmate."Asserted the parole officer: "Subject is receiving full medical care as needed by staff at this facility. This officer is not convinced that Subject would be hindered in a way as to not commit other crimes."

Dr. Gary Campbell, one of the prison doctor's supervisors, received both reports. In a March 1998 fax to a colleague, Dr. Robert Hampton, Campbell agreed with the parole officer. "I am going to wait on this," he wrote. "I just don't feel she is at the level of illness yet that would make her a candidate for parole.... I'm not sure she isn't just overacting!"

Soon afterward Summers was transferred to the newly opened Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Vandalia, about 100 miles northwest of St. Louis. Her health did not improve. In May 1999, Dr. Campbell wrote a letter to the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) recommending medical parole. Summers had been to the infirmary several times to control her fluid retention, she'd been to the hospital, she still had periods of bleeding and her liver was failing, he wrote. "These problems have continued to worsen over time and will inevitably result in Ms. Summers' death unless she receives a liver transplant which is not medically advisable in a correctional setting because of long-term infection risks," Campbell's recommendation went on.

Though Summers had already been scheduled for regular parole in January 2000, the parole board denied Campbell's request without a hearing. By then it was clear to Summers that she likely would not live out the year. "I am sending this to say that I love you," she wrote in a letter to her daughter, Beverly Walker. "My medical parole was again denied. I may have to bleed to death. I made some pretty foolish mistakes....sometimes you learn a little too late. I hope to see you again, but if I don't, remember that I love you and your boys and all my family. I do believe in Jesus Christ our Heavenly Father and I know He has forgiven and at least I will see my sister Lois and my mother. Love always, your mother."

On August 26, 1999, Summers began to hemorrhage from the mouth and was taken by ambulance to the University of Missouri hospital in Columbia. "The Physicians at UMC Hospital have been unsuccessful in stopping her bleeding with the usual measures and are preparing to do a procedure to reduce pressure in the veins that are bleeding," Dr. Hampton wrote in a report to the MDOC the following day. "This is a last step measure to stop the bleeding and has a risk of death and of worsening her liver failure." The inmate's family, Hampton asserted, should be permitted to visit.

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