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 2001 Gilpin, along with Summers' two children, filed a federal lawsuit against CMS and the Missouri Department of Corrections, alleging medical neglect and negligence, wrongful death and civil-rights violations. Among other things, the suit cites CMS doctors' initial failure to diagnose Summers for an infectious disease at a stage when she could have received "life-saving treatment," and its subsequent failure to evaluate her for a liver transplant.

As in the McElroy case, spokesmen for CMS and the MDOC decline to comment, and as in McElroy's case, officials from the company and the state deny the allegations in court pleadings, asserting that the lawsuit is "frivolous."

Gilpin has an undated medical summary CMS prepared about Stephanie Summers. "This patient had extensive medical and psychological problems while in the Department of Corrections," the summary reads. "She has seen more specialists, had more nurses and doctors visits, and for [sic] requests more acute care than anyone in my experience. Her medical care has been extensive and well managed since she has entered the DOC. Since 12-4-95, she has had 867 nurse encounters, including 53 self-declared emergencies and 275 physician encounters. I see no evidence of improper medical care by the attending physicians. In fact, I see continued concern and compassion for a patient who was deemed very difficult and manipulative."

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

To Richard Neely, Summers' son, CMS exhibited no concern or compassion for his mother or the family. When she got the call from prison officials informing her that Summers was dying, Gilpin had been unable to track him down at the golf course where he worked, and in the heat of the moment she opted to make the six-hour drive from Joplin without her nephew. When she got to the hospital, she called and told Neely it was best not to come. Seeing Summers would be too wrenching for him, she thought; besides, his mother would probably die before he could get there.

"Just try to imagine somebody that you love larger than life, and not getting to be there in their last times," Neely says today. "The worst thing is not knowing whether my mother's last thoughts in this world was ill of me because she didn't know we were coming. These are things that can never be answered for me, that I live with, that I keep swallowed every day."

Gilpin and Neely say they sued after CMS's contract was renewed and it became clear to them that changes in the correctional healthcare system were not forthcoming. When the defense questioned him at his deposition, Neely adds, one attorney asked what he'd do if he won the case: "I looked at him and said, 'Sir, I don't care nothing about your money.'"

"I know she did wrong and the law said she was where she needed to be," Gilpin puts in. But that was no excuse, she says, for denying her sister adequate medical care.

"She paid the ultimate price for a forged check," Gilpin says, her voice cracking. "I don't know any other way to make a change. I can't totally let her die in vain."

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