When William Jessup got to Vandalia prison he went to the dentist. Jessup says the dentist told him he had two cavities and offered to pull them.
“No, you’re gonna pull my teeth out. Any qualified dentist will tell you it’s always best to keep your teeth,” said Jessup in a recent interview at the Vandalia prison in southern Illinois. “I’m assuming it still applies here but obviously it don’t, because I still have the two cavities.”
Rivera says the sores on his feet got so large and painful that eventually he couldn’t walk. “They gave me some kind of a shot and it relieved it a little bit but it took a nice three months,” said Rivera.
Illinois taxpayers are paying Wexford Health Sources, a private health care company, moe than $1.3 billion over ten years to provide care for inmates in prisons. But most of the inmates WBEZ has talked to say, unless it’s an emergency, they’re not getting the care taxpayers have already paid for. And the Illinois Department of Corrections doesn’t seem to have any mechanism to ensure that taxpayers aren’t being fleeced in the health care deal.
Elders has a hard growth on the palm of his right hand. He holds it up for me to see and pokes at the hard part.
“It’s all along the tendon,” said Elders. It’s climbing probably three inches up my hand on my tendon. That’s all hard, real hard and right here there’s a big ol’ thing. It’s pulling that finger in. They say it’s a calcium build-up. They called it some kind of hemotobin globin, er...”
It’s like a hard stick under his skin that runs from his wrist towards the ring finger on his right hand. It breaks into two strands as it approaches the knuckle, making the growth under his skin look like the letter ‘Y.’ It pulls his one finger back so it’s constantly curled and he can’t straighten it out, and it’s getting worse. He went to see the prison doctor about the problem.
“They tell you flat out, they can’t do nothing for you,” said Elders. “Unless it’s an immediate issue, they’re not doing nothing for you. He said, well, I’ll give you some aspirins and I suggest you take care of it as soon as you can when you get out or you’re going to end up like this, all crippled up, but there’s nothing we’re going to do for you here.”
Elders wasn’t surprised by the ‘treatment.’ “That, to me, it’s what I’m used to. It’s the system. Everything’s blamed on not enough money. What can you do with that? I have no kind of say so. If you back-talk anybody you’re in trouble,” said Elders.
DOZIER: That’s hard to believe but....
I also asked Dozier about Elders and the growth on his hand. Dozier said offenders can file grievances. That’s the name for the formal complaint process in Illinois prisons. But in the next breath Dozier all but admitted that filing a grievance on a medical issue would be pointless.
“If the doctor states, gives him a rational why he can’t do it, I mean, he’s our medical director. I can’t question what he tells the offender,” said Dozier.
Admittedly, a corrections professional shouldn’t be overruling the health care decisions of a medical professional. But then who does vet the health care decisions being made?
In written statements given to WBEZ over the last several months, the Department of Corrections has said repeatedly that it oversees health care, holding, “monthly continuous quality improvement meetings.” But the department has yet to provide someone who can explain exactly what happens at these meetings, who’s involved or what information they’re looking at.
According to the prison watchdog group the John Howard Association no one seems to be providing meaningful oversight of prison health care. In fact, last year, the John Howard Association reported that the state entered into a more than $1.3 billion contract with a company called Wexford Health Sources without auditing the company’s previous performance in the state.
I asked Warden Dozier how he, as the top official at the Vandalia prison, ensures that Wexford is delivering the care that Illinois taxpayers have been paying for.
“Okay, I don’t have an answer for that,” said Dozier.
“Well, I’ve heard similar stories and actually worse, and I’m very concerned that we’re paying about $1.3 billion dollars to a private company to manage health care in our prisons, and I want to look into are we getting quality health care for the folks for the money that we’re paying,” said Harris.
Greg Harris has been looking into the health care contract. His interest was piqued by the John Howard Association report last year. Harris says his review of the contract shows that the deal is a good one as long as Wexford actually provides the care they’re supposed to provide. “I mean we can’t take the Department of Corrections word for it and we can’t take the private company’s word for it,” said Harris. ”I want somebody to go in and independently verify that people are being adequately treated.”
Harris is planning to hold a hearing on April 4th in Chicago to take a closer look at the contract. He’s pushing to bring the National Commission on Correctional Health Care into Illinois prisons to provide independent oversight.
Wexford declined to be interviewed for this story. In fact, the company with a billion-dollar public contract in Illinois has refused all of our requests for interviews. However, in a written statement, they said they provide medically necessary care as required by the constitution while at the same time acting as responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars. Wexford also says it welcomes Rep. Harris’ push to bring a third party into the Illinois prisons to audit Wexford’s performance.