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Women’s Prison Must Improve Medical Care, Judge Says

By Daniel Berti, Capital News Service

A federal judge has ruled that the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women is in violation of a federal court order mandating basic medical care — nearly a year and a half after the high-profile death of an inmate.

Deanna Niece died of cardiac arrest in her cell at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women on July 25, 2017, after several unmet requests for medical assistance that same day, according to the prison.

Niece is one of four prisoners who died of preventable deaths at the prison since 2016, U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon found. Legal advocates for the women say their deaths reflect a pattern of inadequate medical care at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women.

"In sum, the medical treatment these women received was neither timely nor appropriate, and their deaths illustrate the danger of not having appropriate medical equipment on hand," Moon wrote.

On Wednesday, Judge Moon concluded that the Virginia Department of Corrections and FCCW had violated the terms of a 2016 settlement agreement that required the agency to implement medical care reforms at the prison.

“The record shows that VDOC’s and FCCW’s own officials had — by their own admission — actual knowledge that FCCW was not complying with parts of the Settlement Agreement,” Moon said.

The court determined that the facility’s medical team had remained understaffed and that, as of January 2018, the shortage of nurses at the prison had actually gotten worse since the settlement agreement took effect in 2016.

The report also alleges that FCCW failed to improve access to medical equipment for medical personnel, which was relevant in Niece’s death.

“In the last minutes of Niece’s life, as she choked and bled from her mouth, neither a stretcher, nor oxygen, nor suction equipment was readily available,” Moon wrote.

Additionally, the court’s findings showed that the facility’s medical staff failed to appropriately supply and administer medications to prisoners. The plaintiffs documented several occasions in which medical staff failed to reorder medications before they ran out because of incorrect charting or record-keeping, and in some cases, “by nurses not even knowing how to reorder medications.”

Prison officials argued that they were unable to carry out the obligations set forth in the settlement agreement because the language was too “subjective” and unclear. That argument earned a rebuke from Moon, who wrote, “The Settlement Agreement does not condone lollygagging.”

“Women at FCCW have died in the months and years after approval of the Settlement Agreement,” Moon added.

Lisa Kinney, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said that the court had declined to find the department in contempt and would not impose civil penalties.

“VDOC has continued to work to provide appropriate medical care to inmates during the pendency of the lawsuit,” Kinney said.

The court has ordered the prison to fulfill a number of requirements to remedy its breach of the settlement agreement, however.

FCCW will be required to have 78 nursing-equivalents on staff and ready access to medical equipment such as backboards for carrying patients and suction machines in all FCCW buildings. The order will also require nurses “to be trained on how to reorder medications, as well as identify and respond to signs of cardiovascular or pulmonary problems.”

The settlement agreement was the outcome of a yearslong legal battle that began in 2012 when prisoners at FCCW filed suit against the VDOC for failing to provide adequate healthcare to prisoners.

Inmates then filed a motion of contempt in September 2017, claiming that medical care at FCCW had not improved since the settlement was reached.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Shannon Ellis, said that serious medical misdiagnosis and preventable deaths were ongoing in the years after the settlement agreement was reached.

“Wednesday’s ruling is an important victory for the women who have suffered for years at FCCW,” Ellis said. “This decision is important not only for the women at FCCW, but because it lays bare the terrible human, financial, and legal costs of Virginia’s current practice of over-incarceration across the state.”

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