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May 8, 2021

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Other Papers Say: Prison health care needs repair

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The following editorial originally appeared in The Seattle Times:

Recently, the state Office of Corrections Ombuds released a report that highlights the prison system’s latest reprehensible indifference toward the health of people in state custody. This time, delayed cancer treatments led to serious and deadly consequences.

Just days after the draft report on the disturbing delays for cancer treatment landed on Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk, Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair announced his May 1 early retirement. A governor’s spokesman said the retirement is unrelated to this latest report of yet another medical lapse.

Regardless, Sinclair’s departure poses an opportunity for the governor to make fixing the state’s litany of prison clinic failures a top priority. The next secretary must do better by the health of the state’s imprisoned population.

The latest report analyzed the cases of 11 incarcerated people, ages 35 to 68, whose cancer diagnoses and treatments were delayed by an average of 6.5 months after initial complaints.

The delay was 17 months in the case of one imprisoned man later found with “high-grade, aggressive” colon cancer. Another man, Michael Boswell, left a grieving mother and sister who asked the Legislature this spring to require reviews of in-custody deaths. Boswell, 37, died of skin cancer 14 months after staff at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla rebuffed his first plea for help in May 2019. His initial requested treatment of a growing lesion was “not authorized by DOC,” the report says. At least two of the others have been released with now-terminal cancers.

This treatment looks even worse in context of Corrections’ other recent health care failures. A 2020 OCO report described two cancer deaths at Monroe Correctional Complex after inadequate treatments. The DOC fired Monroe’s medical director after a series of erroneous treatments and seven other deaths.

State prison pandemic response has been a mixed bag. The 14 people in DOC custody who died of COVID-19 is one of the nation’s lowest state counts among the incarcerated, according to the Marshall Project. Still, the 6,191 people in custody who contracted COVID-19 constitutes more than 39 percent of the overall DOC incarcerated population. For the entire state population, the rate is about 5 percent.

The need for better prison health care is permanent, not a pandemic deficiency. Incarcerated people cannot easily seek out multiple medical opinions when they disagree with decisions made for them.

Gov. Inslee is responsible for this duty. He and his next corrections secretary must ensure that people in custody receive “basic medical services.” He and the Legislature should devote resources for humane reforms of a system that has failed too many, and enact Senate Bill 5119 to review unexpected in-custody deaths.

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