To be sure, California and Washington are not the only states facing charges of medical abuse, neglect, or indifference. A recently released Amnesty International report, “Not Part of My Sentence: Violations of the Human Rights of Women in Custody,” has highlighted medical maltreatment in Florida, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., among other states.
Women, who now constitute 6.4 percent of the prison population in the United States, often arrive in prison with serious health problems. The 10- and 20-year sentences eventually become death sentences for some of these women when serious and inadequately treated illnesses become terminal.
In California, a compassionate release policy designed for inmates dying in prison was signed into law in October of 1997. But since the law became effective in January 1998, the numbers of compassionate releases have actually decreased. According to CDC spokeswoman Thornton, eight releases were granted in 1995, while just one was granted in 1998. So far, one release has been granted this year, under what Cynthia Chandler of the Women’s Positive Legal Action Network considers disturbing circumstances.
Tina Balagno, an HIV-positive prisoner with a history of drug addiction, started complaining of severe leg pain when she was admitted to CCWF in June 1998, and shortly thereafter discovered lumps in one of her breasts. While her leg pains were not addressed, a malignancy was found in her breast, and her family urged immediate treatment. In November, Balagno was admitted to surgery for what she thought would be a lumpectomy, only to wake up to realize her breast had been removed. According to Chandler, Balagno received no chemotherapy or radiation treatment and got only Motrin for her pain. Falling into a coma after suffering two seizures in January, Balagno was diagnosed with metastasized bone cancer, and was released to her family just one week before her death. She was 40.
Greenspan, one of the co-authors of the compassionate release legislation, finds the current overall lack of compassion toward severely ill prisoners disheartening. “The problem is that the political climate is so antiprisoner, and prisoners have been so demonized, that they are not even getting out [on compassionate release],” she says. “The system’s refusal to release dying prisoners is both inhumane and unconscionable.”