WITH AMERICAN military personnel being sentenced to prison for abusing Iraqi prisoners
of war and Amnesty International calling the military detention facility at Guantánamo
Bay a “gulag,” the world’s attention is being drawn to this
nation’s treatment of the prisoners it takes on foreign battlefields.
That’s an encouraging development, but as someone who’s spent more
than his share of time in prisons right here in the U.S., I’m waiting for
the other shoe to drop. More than 2 million people languish in prisons and jails
here, frequently enduring conditions of confinement that rise to the level of
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TORTURE IN American prisons takes many forms, but one ever-present manifestation
is the denial of adequate medical care. In Wisconsin prisons, death by refusal
of medical treatment in the case of asthma attack has become a frighteningly
common spectacle in the past several years.
In 2000, Michelle Greer, a 29-year-old inmate at Wisconsin’s Taycheedah
Correctional Institution (TCI), suffered severe asthma attacks. As a result,
she had a regular appointment at the prison’s Health Services Unit (HSU).
Every morning at 8 a.m., Greer reported to the HSU to have prison nurses check
At 6:30 a.m. on February 2, the inmates in Greer’s housing unit were
released from their cells for breakfast. During the meal, Greer approached a
guard captain in the dining hall and reported that she was suffering an asthma
attack. She said her inhaler was not functioning properly and she needed medical
At 7 a.m., the captain called the HSU and spoke to nurse Todd Graff, who instructed
the captain to tell Greer to return to her cell, relax, use her inhaler and
report for her regular appointment at 8 a.m. The captain relayed these instructions
to Greer--who by that time was screaming, demanding that she required immediate
At 7:10 a.m., Greer left the dining hall and entered her housing unit. According
to a guard sergeant on duty there, Greer was crying and screaming, saying she
couldn’t breathe and that she needed medical attention. But the guard
also told Greer to calm down and return to her cell, which she did.
At 7:25 a.m., the sergeant called the HSU and spoke to nurse Deborah Federer
and told her that Greer said she was unable to breathe and appeared to be in
bad shape. Federer told the sergeant that she would see Greer at 8 a.m.
At 7:50 a.m., a guard released Greer from her cell so that she could report
to the HSU. The prison dining hall is 325 feet from the housing unit where Greer
lived, and the HSU is an additional 575 feet away.
Greer entered the dining hall at 8 a.m., and inmate janitors were cleaning
the area. Greer approached one of the janitors, stumbling and clutching at her
chest. “Please help me,” she said and then collapsed. She died there
on the floor of the dining hall.
On the outside, a person suffering an asthma attack can call an ambulance or
go to an emergency room. In prison, however, an inmate suffering a medical emergency
can only report their problem to a guard--and hope that prison employees react
It is particularly disturbing that, in Greer’s case, it wasn’t
prison guards who neglected her needs, but the medical professionals who lethally
ignored their duties.
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MORE COMMONLY, guards refuse to report inmates’ emergency medical concerns
to medical staff.
David Urban was serving a 30-day sentence in the Winnebago County Jail in Oshkosh,
Wis., in early 1995. At 1 p.m. on January 13, the 35-year-old Urban began complaining
to guards that he felt ill and needed medical attention. The guards thought
Urban was faking, and they refused to summon help. Urban died of a heart attack
20 hours later.
Urban was able to use a dayroom telephone, and he called his girlfriend, Vanessa
Miller, several times during that afternoon and evening. At 11:00 p.m., Urban
told Miller that he felt like his chest was caving in. In another call, Urban
was screaming, saying, “I feel like I’m dying. All they’ve
done is take my blood pressure and pulse.”
Patty Strassen, a clerk at the jail, testified at the inquest proceeding that
on his last afternoon alive, Urban was vomiting, grabbing his stomach and chest,
and talking to himself, saying, “My God, I’m sick. Someone help
No one was prosecuted for Urban’s death, and there is nothing unusual
in that. Wisconsin authorities routinely refuse to hold prison employees accountable
in the deaths of inmates. In fact, Kristine Krenke, who was the TCI warden at
the time of Michelle Greer’s death, was promoted six months after Greer
In 1990, guards at Wisconsin’s maximum-security Waupun Correctional Institution
(WCI) completely immobilized inmate Donald Woods by using several restraining
belts to strap Woods’ body to the steel-frame bed in his cell. In the
process of this strap-down, a 250-pound guard knelt on Woods’ chest while
cinching a restraining belt.
Restraining an inmate in that extreme fashion can lead to health problems,
and Wisconsin law requires that a nurse check on immobilized inmates every 30
minutes. WCI nurse Beth Dittman was working the day guards strapped Donald Woods
down, and she did check on Woods every half hour. Woods failed to respond every
time she checked.
Dittman did not give Woods any medical attention, summon a doctor or instruct
the guards to release Woods from the strap down. Instead, she faithfully wrote
“nonresponsive” in the logbook every time she checked him. And that
was all she did.
Donald Woods died of asphyxiation that day. The Wisconsin Medical Examiners
Board suspended Dittman’s license for 30 days for “conduct below
the standards of the profession.” But again, the Wisconsin Department
of Corrections did not fire Dittman, but promoted her. After Woods’ death,
Dittman became the director of the HSU at Wisconsin’s Dodge Correctional
Beth Dittman is no less a criminal than Lynndie England, the Army private who
earlier this year pled guilty to abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
Yet because Dittman works in a prison inside the U.S. rather than in an American
military prison in Iraq, her abuse of the human rights of inmates is treated
in a manner strikingly different than the fate meted out to England.
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