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.

· Since March, three Vandalia inmates -- Crystal Smith, Al'Deana Simmons and Sharon Kroll -- have died while in custody, raising allegations of medical neglect. Additionally, the deaths of Vandalia inmates Cheri Rose, Ellen "Honey" Ross and Lavenia Populus during the past four years have spurred accusations of inadequate healthcare.

· In July a CMS nurse gave approximately fifteen Vandalia inmates the wrong antidepressant; as a result, about a dozen prisoners were sent to the hospital.

· Two other cases have resulted in medical malpractice lawsuits against CMS and the MDOC. One was filed in 2001 by the family of Stephanie Summers. The other was filed by recently paroled Vandalia inmate Vicki McElroy, who claims that a hepatitis C treatment plan she was given while in prison in another state was ignored when she was transferred to Missouri.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union are investigating medical care at the women's prison in Vandalia, 100 miles northwest of St. Louis
Jennifer Silverberg
The U.S. Department of Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union are investigating medical care at the women's prison in Vandalia, 100 miles northwest of St. Louis
Vicki McElroy, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C while serving time in Washington, says CMS took her off her treatment plan when she was transferred to Vandalia
Jennifer Silverberg
Vicki McElroy, who was diagnosed with hepatitis C while serving time in Washington, says CMS took her off her treatment plan when she was transferred to Vandalia

· Another Vandalia inmate, Vera Jones, claimed CMS failed to monitor her for side effects from a tuberculosis medication. Jones, who also suffered from hepatitis C, was medically paroled this past summer and died soon after.

"A fair review will show that healthcare professionals at the prison do an excellent job meeting the needs of inmate patients," asserts CMS' Dr. Louis Tripoli.

Sister Frances Buschell, prison coordinator for the Jefferson City Roman Catholic Diocese, views the situation differently. "My biggest concern is with timeliness and follow-through," says Buschell, who has ministered to Vandalia inmates for almost six years. "It is really a problem to see neglect or to see somebody with cancer sitting there waiting two or three or four months to get diagnosed."

Sara Gilpin is blunt in her assessment of the company that provided medical care for her late sister, Stephanie Summers. "It is the most corrupt corporation based on greed that I've ever seen," Gilpin says of CMS. "Not only do they keep getting wealthier, lots of people are losing their lives from corporate greed."


On August 31, 1999, as Stephanie Summers lay in a coma, state representative Glenda Kelly, a Democrat from St. Joseph, convened a meeting of the state's Joint Committee on Correctional Institutions and Problems, which she chaired. Gathered in the Senate Lounge for the public hearing along with Kelly and eight fellow committee members were former inmates and family members, prison-rights activists, representatives from CMS and then-prison superintendent Dora Schriro.

The inmates and their advocates didn't get the warmest reception. "In the eighteen years that I have served here in the Missouri Senate, I probably had four complaints against Corrections on medical treatment," said Senator Danny Staples, who had formerly chaired the committee. Staples is an Eminence Democrat whose district southeast of Jefferson City is home to four prisons. "For you to sit there in the witness chair and explain to me after I have driven 150 miles today and 150 miles tonight that this is happening today -- I want documentation of that," he said.

Republican representative Jon Dolan of Lake St. Louis was likewise impatient. "What I get from you is that there is this existence of this Dateline-styled scandal out there," he scolded. Dolan wasn't interested in what he called "just the vague references" that in "many ways may insult the former chair's management of this committee." He wanted specifics, such as medical records.

Peter DeSimone, executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, was testifying at the time. When DeSimone pointed out that he didn't have access to medical records, Dolan replied, "That's a cop-out."

Barbara Ross, who works for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Jefferson City, also testified. "The common experience of women and men in prison in Missouri is that the medical staff does too little too late and that they treat the symptoms rather than look for the deeper causes of sickness and death," said Ross, who then told the committee about a 29-year-old Vandalia inmate named Cheri Rose. For nine months, Ross said, Rose had claimed she felt weak and suffered from headaches and blotchy skin that were diagnosed as spider bites. The actual culprit, however, was leukemia. Rose went nine months without a diagnosis, Ross told the committee. Once her illness was discovered, she was given a week's chemotherapy -- while in shackles. After a second week of chemo Rose was medically paroled and died shortly thereafter.

Former inmate Bonita Holley told the committee about fellow inmate Ellen "Honey" Ross. According to Holley, Ross was ignored when she insisted she was being given the wrong medications. And Ross' daughter told the panel that her mother had complained of severe headaches. After Ross suffered a stroke and died in prison, her family alleged that the corrections department refused to release her medical records unless they signed a release of liability.

"How do you sleep at night?" Holley asked. "Inmates are dying. I'm telling you today: Send help immediately to the Missouri Department of Corrections."

The committee didn't send any help that day. Kelly did, however, schedule a second hearing, which was held October 6, 1999. According to the transcript, neither Dolan nor Staples was present. But Sara Gilpin was there, and she was the first to testify.

Gilpin chronicled her sister's ordeal, blaming CMS and the MDOC for failing to test Stephanie Summers for hepatitis C when it was first recommended by an outside doctor, and for failing to evaluate her for a liver transplant or for interferon treatments.

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