Medical Care in the Illinois Prison System

cardiogram superimposed atop a prison barbed wire

When a man is sent to prison he loses the respect that most men enjoy. He becomes a number in the penal system. No longer do his words carry weight. He is ignored and placed in the “I do not give a shit” pile.

Low Battery Punishment

The Health Care system in place in the Illinois prison system is an inside joke. The services are contracted out to a medical contractor that gets one hundred and ten million dollars a year to supply the healthcare needs of the entire Illinois Department of Correction prisoner body. The contractor is allowed to keep all the money — as a bonus —  that is not spent on prisoner care. So you have a system with a built-in incentive to give the prisoners only the barest minimum of health care—this is the policy that is crammed down each employee’s throat.

In August 2016 I had a new pacemaker placed in my chest. The ten-year battery life in my first pacemaker had expired. When the new machine was put in, the cardiac team required a pacemaker check every three months.

But two months later, in October 2016, I was placed in segregation at the Danville Correctional Center. Then in December I was shipped to the Big Muddy River Correctional Center. On December 22, 2016, the ticket was expunged by the Illinois Department of Corrections Administrative Review Board—in other words, the punishment administered upon me was ruled unfounded. I remained in the Big Muddy River Correctional Center receiving building upon release from the illegal segregation sentence imposed.

I spent ninety days at the Big Muddy River Correctional Center. Then I was given a transfer to the Shawnee Correctional Center located outside Vienna, Illinois. By law, I could not be disciplined for my history of prison litigation, for the Big Muddy River Correctional Center disciplinary transfer, so the Warden at Big Muddy River Correctional Center had me transferred to the Shawnee Correctional Center on March 8, 2017. This was actually another disciplinary transfer—even though my ticket was expunged—as the conditions are Shawnee are harsher. Shawnee is run as a maximum security prison, whereas I am assigned to a medium security prison.

No Pacemaker Check-up

So now you know the history in play here. October, November, December 2016, with no pacemaker check-up. Then we have January, February and March of 2017 with no scheduled pacemaker check-up. Finally, after I raised the issue really urgently, the pacemaker check-up was scheduled on April 28, 2017. On April 28, 2017, I was flagged for the Shawnee Correctional Center Medical Director to determine how often the pacemaker check was to be done now that I was to be permanently housed there.

On May 11, 2017, the Medical Director ordered a pacemaker check to be done every three months. There is a machine that is used to do the check-up. It is attached to a phone line at the prison health care unit. An oval device is placed upon my chest directly over the pacemaker. The phone call is made to the Carbondale Prairie Heartland Cardiac Center. Then the pacemaker is read by their computer over the phone line. Any tweaking of the device is done over the phone line. Pretty simple really.

Now here is the fly in the ointment. The Medical Department has one machine that must be used in all twenty-four prisons in Illinois. They only bought one. So January 2018 rolls around and no pacemaker check-up done since April 28th. I am forced to file a grievance. Now I must take the steps to see that I get adequate health care done here. They call to have the machine shipped here. It is not sent. So my treatment is shelved. Crazy!

Now we have the fact that my pacemaker placement was due to “profound bradycardia,” a very low heart rate due to hypothyroidism symptoms exacerbated by the soy protein diet in place in the prisons. See, my thyroid disorder I developed from consuming the soy creates daily symptom. One is that it affects my heart rate, slowing it down to the point of thirty-eight to thirty-nine beats per minute. This caused me to pass out and have muscle seizures due to low oxygen levels in my body. Thus, the pacemaker placement in June 2006.

Now I get a disciplinary transfer to a prison ran as a “punishment prison” to deter me, the prison litigator. I was shipped here to “get my mind right,” for I have stood up and questioned the illegal treatment I was being subjected to. For many years I had a medical no-soy diet, but here at Shawnee, this has been denied. So I have to be careful. Consuming the prison diet exacerbates my thyroid disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis—it slows my heart rate due to the hypothyroidism symptoms of the disease. So here is my Catch 22 situation.

So after the first of the year I started pushing the issue. I need the pacemaker check-up. For the heart is the engine. If it goes belly up, I go belly down. Yes, I have a machine running my heart to keep it pacing at sixty beats per minute. But if you keep forcing me to consume a food that makes my machine work all the time, I am rolling the dice daily. Most of the time as long as I am not eating the soy my heart functions on its own power. The pacemaker really only paces me when I sleep.

Shawnee Health Care Unit Administrator Takes Action

So I start drafting letters to the Health Care Unit Administrator at Shawnee Correctional Center. The guys here in the prisoner population call me the “White Johnny Cochran.” But the paper trail started to produce the desired effect. In March 2018, I begin to get appointments to be seen at the Shawnee Health Care Unit. Only when the Shawnee Health Care Unit Administrator takes a look at my file does she take action.

I have a low-bunk permit because climbing and passing out—due to my heart condition—could cause me to fall and bust my doom open in the steel and concrete box I live in. The permit is issued for only one year at a time‚I do not understand this as my condition is permanent. I also have a degenerating right hip joint, which is not going to get better.

I was having a hard time getting the permit re-issued.  Only when I filed a grievance and start the paper trail to the bosses in place do I get heard. The Health Care Unit Administrator took up my pleadings and lowered the boom. I was seen by the Medical Doctor on March 27, 2018. The lower bunk permit was re-instated and I received a copy the next day. I got a pacemaker check on April 27 and am scheduled for another the last week of July.

I am told the machine is being sent here so they can do the required treatment with the Cardiac Center in Carbondale. So I will see. I have been hearing that story for a year. But the small war was won. The Health Care Administrator stepped in and did her job. She chewed some butts and got my health care treatments back online. I see there is some good people working here. So I thank her for taking on my case and for hearing my voice. I will let you know when I get the check-up. I thought you might like to take a walk in my shoes.

There was another guy with a pacemaker that was on the wing with me—heart problems and thyroid disorders are running wild in the men in the Illinois Department of Corrections, which the Medical Department is trying to hide. For once they admit the soy diet is causing the thyroid disorders in the male population, they must change the diet.

Meanwhile, because most of the men do not have the support system and knowledge that I have, they can deny them correct care. The men are silenced with their own ignorance of the medical facts. In prison, you need to sweat the man and raise your voice. With the paper trail of the grievance process, you can win the small battles to get the correct healthcare in the long house. But you need the help of a good one on the inside. The Shawnee Health Care Unit Administrator is one of the good ones. So my hat is tipped to her today. I just wanted to say thank you.

Your Writer in IronsLarry “Rocky” Harris

Author: Larry Harris

My name is Larry “Rocky” Harris and I am serving a sixty-five year prison term in the state of Illinois for a crime I didn’t commit. After I went to prison, I began to study the law, and now I am what is called a “prison lawyer.” I provide legal advice to inmates who can't afford a lawyer. I am looking forward to telling my story in this blog, and also providing a forum for prisoners everywhere.

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