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.

Spokesmen for CMS and the corrections department decline to comment on McElroy's case. But the defendants deny the allegations in court pleadings, deeming them "frivolous."

This past August, McElroy says, "I started throwing up blood." She was sent to a local hospital where, she says, a specialist found a mass on her liver but opted not to probe it for fear the patient would bleed to death. McElroy's subsequent request for a medical parole was denied at first; but after Sister Frances Buschell appeared before the head of the parole board on her behalf, the decision was reversed.

As McElroy leaves the prison on the morning of September 24, her hands shake but her gait is slow and steady. In the early going of the hour-and-a-half ride to St. Louis, she asks to stop at a gas station to buy crackers. Her stomach is upset -- not so much from the illness, but from nervousness: When she began serving her sentence, her daughter was two years old, she explains; McElroy hasn't seen her since.

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

While she awaits her flight at Lambert airport, McElroy is interviewed by a television reporter. Sullivan, standing a few feet away, begins to cry. "At least she is going home to die," the activist says. "But she's not the last one."

Sullivan is right. Five days later, on September 29, a 58-year-old Vandalia inmate named Sharon Kroll will die. According to MDOC spokesman Tim Kniest, the cause of death is listed as terminal cancer of the lungs and bone.

Denise Lieberman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, says her organization has fielded an unusually high number of calls about the women's prison at Vandalia. At present, Lieberman reports, the ACLU is looking into more than 50 complaints about the facility, ranging from allegations of wrongful death to grievances about botched medical care, failure to provide care, inadequate gynecological and reproductive healthcare and unsanitary conditions.

The complaints stood out to her in three ways, Lieberman says: "Their gravity, their consistency and the sheer number."

In May, as ACLU staffers were mulling whether to launch an investigation into Vandalia, the U.S. Department of Justice called with a question: Did the civil-liberties group have any information about the Women's Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center? It seemed the Justice Department, too, was interested.

"They asked for our cooperation and we've worked cooperatively with them on this," says Lieberman. "I can't answer anything for the Department of Justice," she goes on. "[But] we have an investigation, ongoing right now, concerning the conditions for women at the Vandalia prison, particularly as it relates to medical care."

The ACLU has worked to bring together prison ministry groups, advocates and volunteers. Investigators have made two trips to the prison, but Lieberman says the probe has hit some snags. "I can tell you that it is my understanding that the Justice Department has had difficulty obtaining medical records and has not been allowed to tour the facility," she says.

"We've been very cooperative," counters Tim Kniest. According to Kniest, the Justice Department first contacted the MDOC about the Vandalia prison in November 2002. "They initially said they wanted to go to Vandalia and do an investigation which was a whole variety of issues that included food service, sewage. Medical was part of it," he says. According to Kniest, Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon negotiated an agreement with the DOJ that limited the investigation to medical issues and specified how state and federal officials would communicate with one another. While he can't comment on the open investigation, Kniest says, "I can tell you that the Department of Justice has interviewed about 127 inmates to date, which we have facilitated and accommodated. They've also requested medical records; we've copied over 60,000 pages of medical records for them. My understanding is right now the Department of Justice and the Attorney General are working out a way to review those records."

As far as specific allegations about inadequate healthcare, Kniest says that when an inmate dies in custody, the institution's staff reviews the death and then a committee at MDOC's central office reviews the person's medical history. Independent autopsies are often performed. "In some situations, we also refer deaths to a physician that we contract with who is totally independent of CMS and the department," Kniest says. "They let us know if they believe there is anything missing in terms of treatment." No such problems, the MDOC spokesman says, have been found.

The department does not, however, review deaths of inmates who were medically paroled.

Regarding the deaths of Crystal Smith, Al'Deana Simmons, Lavenia Populus, Cheri Rose, Ellen "Honey" Ross and Sharon Kroll, CMS's Dr. Tripoli states, "We dispute the allegations, which are inflammatory and biased." Tripoli further cites a Vandalia executive council survey that polled inmates about medical care: "Over 70 percent of the population stated that there had been tremendous improvements. For every allegation that you have asked about, there are many examples of patients who are very pleased with the care they have received."

Sara Gilpin says that when she arrived at the hospital to see her sister in September 1999, the guard stationed outside Stephanie Summers' room was in tears: For days she'd wondered why the dying woman's family hadn't come.

« Previous Page
Next Page »