California and the West; 

Deaths of 3 Women in State Prison Probed

Inmates: Activists say slow and shoddy medical care at Chowchilla facility is to blame. Corrections officials counter that the health system has been greatly improved. 
The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Dec 20, 2000; 
ERIC BAILEY;MARK ARAX; 

Abstract: 
Activists say the deaths this month of Stephanie Hardie, 33, of Pomona, Pamela Coffey, 46, of Los Angeles and Eva Vallario, 33, of San Diego appear to be part of a pattern of slipshod medical attention for female inmates. 

Coffey, incarcerated for narcotics sales, died Dec. 2 in front of her cellmates after complaining for weeks about a large knot in her side. Inmates say she was given the antihistamine Benadryl by prison medical staff. The inmates say one of the prison's medical technical assistants, or MTAs, who serve as the first line of prison health care, disregarded Coffey's complaints less than an hour before her death. 

Inmates say another of the prison's MTAs took about 15 minutes to respond after Hardie collapsed in her cell a week later. They say a fellow inmate was left to administer CPR until medical help arrived. 

Full Text: 
(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 2000 allRights reserved) 

State corrections officials are investigating three inmate deaths this month at a state women's prison in Chowchilla that was already under intense scrutiny over persistent complaints of inadequate medical care. 

Prison rights groups say two of the women were not given prompt attention after they began suffering severe health problems at the Central California Women's Facility. 

The deaths were among seven in little more than a month at the prison and came just weeks after a legislative hearing in Sacramento raised new concerns about medical care at the 3,500-inmate penitentiary. 

Activists say the deaths this month of Stephanie Hardie, 33, of Pomona, Pamela Coffey, 46, of Los Angeles and Eva Vallario, 33, of San Diego appear to be part of a pattern of slipshod medical attention for female inmates. 

"Because of the medical neglect in these institutions, women serving time for property offenses or other nonviolent crimes are instead getting death sentences," said Cynthia Chandler, co-director of Justice Network on Women in Oakland. 

Department of Corrections officials counter that medical practices at the Chowchilla prison, which was the target of a now-settled federal class-action lawsuit over shoddy health care, have improved dramatically. 

"It's too early to rush to judgment," said Russ Heimerich, a Corrections Department spokesman. "I wish they'd wait for the facts to come out in these deaths before indicting the whole health care system." 

The state routinely sends seriously ill women inmates to Chowchilla because it operates a hospice and skilled nursing facility. There have been 15 deaths at the prison this year. There were nine in 1999 and 10 in 1998. 

A coalition of prisoner advocacy groups has asked state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) to investigate the latest deaths. Polanco heads the Joint Subcommittee on Prison Construction and Operations. His office did not return phone calls for comment. 

The prisoner advocates say an internal investigation by the prison's health care services division is not sufficient. Heidi Strupp of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children concluded that the years of tussling over prison health care prove that officials "can't police themselves." 

Prison officials said terminal illnesses claimed the lives of the four other women who died in recent weeks. 

But prisoner advocates say two of the women--Carolina Paredes, 67, and Michelle Wilson, 36--were not given timely or proper treatment by the prison health care system. Paredes, behind bars for real estate fraud, died of cancer, and Wilson, imprisoned for prostitution, died four months after brain surgery for a tumor. 

The investigation, conducted by the department's health care services division and the Madera County coroner, will examine the medical history of each inmate, along with toxicology tests and autopsy findings. In addition, an internal review of how prison staff handled the incidents is being conducted. 

Coffey, incarcerated for narcotics sales, died Dec. 2 in front of her cellmates after complaining for weeks about a large knot in her side. Inmates say she was given the antihistamine Benadryl by prison medical staff. The inmates say one of the prison's medical technical assistants, or MTAs, who serve as the first line of prison health care, disregarded Coffey's complaints less than an hour before her death. 

"I looked at her stomach and it had blown up, like she was pregnant nine months with twins," said Rhonda Smith, Coffey's cellmate. By the time an MTA arrived 45 minutes later, Smith said, Coffey could barely speak and could not sit up. 

After examining Coffey, the MTA said he couldn't understand what she was saying, Smith said. "He said, 'You could do more for her than I can,' " Smith said. "He just laughed and walked away." 

Inmates say another of the prison's MTAs took about 15 minutes to respond after Hardie collapsed in her cell a week later. They say a fellow inmate was left to administer CPR until medical help arrived. 

Bobbie Smith, a cellmate, said Hardie had been complaining of chest pains for weeks, saying "that it felt like someone was squeezing her heart." 

Hardie's mother, Diane Hardie Rios, said her daughter had a lifetime of drug problems and was halfway through a 10-year sentence for credit card fraud. 

"The judge gave her a sentence, and it wasn't death," said Rios, a juvenile probation officer in San Bernardino County. Rios added that she is considering a wrongful death lawsuit, saying the delay in medical care was too long. "There's still a lot of questions in my mind." 

Six days after Hardie's death, Vallario died of unexplained causes just outside the prison visiting area. Prison officials say CPR was immediately administered, but failed to revive her. 

Heimerich said many inmates come into the prisons with preexisting conditions and health habits that lead to problems behind bars. In addition, he said, any allegations made by inmates should be taken with caution because "a lot of times they have an ax to grind. They may see someone sick, someone may pass away and the inmates put two and two together and get five." 

But prison activists say the recent spate of deaths fans existing concerns about the conflicting responsibilities of prison system medical technical assistants, who must juggle their role as health care givers with the basic responsibilities of prison guards. 

"Correctional officers are trained to be suspicious of prisoners, to always have an eye out," Chandler said. "If you put that in a medical context, you have a lot of people misdiagnosing because they're trained to be skeptical of what prisoners claim." 

Cayenne Bird, director of the Sacramento prisoners' rights group UNION, said the prison medical facilities amount to "just sort of concocted clinics run by MTAs who are essentially guards. They aren't trained in triage, and they can't even dispense anything more than Pepto-Bismol and Motrin." 

[Illustration] 
Caption: GRAPHIC-MAP: (no caption), Los Angeles Times 
 

Credit: TIMES STAFF WRITERS 
 

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Sub Title:  [Home Edition] 
Edition:  Record edition 
Start Page:  A.3 
ISSN:  04583035 
Subject Terms:  Fatalities 
Women 
Public health 
Investigations 
Prisoners 
Health care 

Geographic Names:  Chowchilla California 

Dateline:  SACRAMENTO 

 


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