Medical Alert: Prison Activist in Need

Sangye Rinchen and Christopher Zoukis

Sangye Rinchen and Christopher Zoukis

By Christopher Zoukis

Today I bring a story that hits a bit too close to home that requires your immediate attention.  For the past two years Sangye Rinchen, a close friend of mine, has been battling a serious, debilitating nerve injury to her leg.  For years she -- Sangye's a transgender Buddhist, thus the feminine pronoun -- has tried to work with her prison's Health Services Department to resolve the issue, but medical care has not been forthcoming.  Instead, all she receives is delays and excuses from FCI Petersburg staff.

Sangye's condition and the lack of medical attention to it is particularly frustrating for many in this prison to watch because she has always been a tireless advocate for the rights of others, and is known as a compassionate voice of reason on the prison yard, always ready to give up her time to help someone in need, regardless of their background or circumstances.  She is the spiritual heart of the strong Buddhist community that she helped found at this prison, and is a true peacemaker among all factions.  Yet, she suffers without any real medical attention.  Some in this community theorize that it is her transgender status, and advocacy efforts for other transgender women here, that is at the root of the FCI Petersburg's failure to treat her.  In the end, the reasons don't matter.  Even some of the line officers here have expressed shock and dismay at the lack of medical treatment.  As for the inmate population, well, many of them are unhappy to say the least.  If it could happen to Sangye, it could happen to them.  As for Sangye, I know she tries to rely on her Buddhist training to remain buoyant and free of anger, but I know that it must be hard.  I'm her cellmate, and I see the pain on her face each and every day.

Thus far, Health Services has allowed some basic diagnostic tests: x-rays, an EMG, a brief review by a orthopedist, and a consult with a brace-maker.  But additional steps have not been forthcoming.  For example, the orthopedist actually refused to touch the leg, stating that a neurologist and an MRI were required.  She has waited for more than a year to see a neurologist, but, in truth, no appointment has even been scheduled.  The EMG showed significant blockage in the nerves of the leg.  She's now using a cane, but continues to fall nevertheless.

As time has gone on, my friend has continued to suffer unnecessarily.  And these issues have persisted.  They're obviously worsening.  Our hope is that they are not degenerative and permanent.  Sangye no longer teaches her cheery yoga classes to the prisoners on Thursday mornings; on some days, she can barely stand up without assistance. Thus far, every medical professional who has examined her leg has exclaimed that she shouldn't have waited so long to come in for help, that waiting has certainly made it worse.  All have been shocked that my friend has been seeking treatment for years on end.

What is needed is your help.  I need you to read the interview that I did with Sangye and I need you to share it with your contacts on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere.  This can simply be accomplished by liking, sharing, tweeting, and commenting on the interview's page.  You can find the interview at the Huffington Post through the following link:

By socially sharing this article (and the previous interview), you will be doing your part to make a difference.  As more people read it and share it with others, more attention will be brought to her condition.  And as more attention is garnered, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will be harder and harder pressed to ignore this matter.

Thank you very much for your time and attention to this matter.  By sharing this interview with others, you will be making a real, timely impact upon my friend's quality of life.

One Incarcerated, Transgender Buddhist's Experience With Medical Care in Federal Prison

By Christopher Zoukis

While the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons has done a great job of promoting itself as the global leader in the humane treatment of prisoners, the reality is that the BOP is now operating at 143 percent of capacity, and its ability to deliver services to the 215,470 men, women, and children in its custody has been greatly compromised in recent years. A scathing report presented to Congress by the General Accounting Office in 2012 only served to underscore this fact.

In no area of federal incarceration is this systemic overburdening of resources more evident than in the state of its medical care. According to USA Today, some 10 percent of federal prisoners are on psychotropic medications, amounting to $32 million in expenditures in the last four years alone. As the federalization of American law has resulted in exponential increases in prosecution for crimes like the possession of child pornography and white collar offenses, the federal prison population is moving toward becoming older, and more infirmed.

To serve this aging population, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has resorted to massive cutbacks in services. The result is that inmates are required to pay for most of their medications and even "sick call" visits, they have also reduced most medical care. They're also increasingly reliant on the use of "Primary Care Provider Teams" for treatment, meaning lessening involvement of MDs or RNs. And while this model "official" provides the acceptable minimum standard of care, it has been catastrophic for many inmates.

Today I sit down with Sangye Rinchen, a federal prison inmate incarcerated for bank robbery at FCI Petersburg -- a medium-security federal prison in Petersburg, Virginia. Sangye is not your typical American prisoner: She is not only a transgender woman (born male, and in the process of transitioning to female), but she also the leader of the Buddhist group here at FCI Petersburg. I have profiled the group elsewhere, and I urge readers to take a look at how the group helps facilitate prisoners from different backgrounds coming together to collectively meditate and worship. Her position that often sees her helping to calm others' rage and anger -- all while keeping her own frustrations in check.

Sangye Rinchen and Christopher Zoukis

Sangye Rinchen and Christopher Zoukis

Her frustrations primarily relate to the deplorable medical treatment that Sangye has been receiving for her leg, a serious condition that has been causing her severe problems for the past three years. For all that time, adequate medical care has been out of reach for her. The issue appears to be one of nerve function, and a condition that seems to be progressive in nature. Sangye's condition has continued to deteriorate to the point of requiring the use of a cane, and a self-made foot/ankle brace, since one has not been forthcoming from prison medical staff.

And with a fall in the recreation yard this morning -- something that occurs several times a week now -- she has finally decided to tell her story to me in the hopes that someone, somewhere might be able to help put her pain and misery -- and this negligence -- to rest.

Is it true you have been waiting for over two years for treatment for your leg? How can this be?

Yes. I've been waiting to get actual treatment for my leg since early 2012, when I noticed my foot wasn't working right. It took me a year to be seen by a doctor, an orthopedist, but he took one look at my gait and asked me if I had had a stroke. He said he wouldn't touch me, and that I needed to see a neurologist. I'm still waiting for that to happen. I've had an X-ray and in early 2014, I received an EMG test (electromyogram) at a local hospital. The doctor running the test asked me, "Why did you wait so long to come in?" I wish I knew.

Apparently, these are injuries to my knee and leg that keep the nerves in my left leg from getting electrical signals. The muscles don't respond. It's gotten worse, so now my whole leg just twitches and spasms all the time. It's pretty painful.

He told me that I may have already waited too long, that the nerve damage to my leg might be irreversible now. The test confirmed my leg isn't really functioning, and the doctor also said I need a neurologist. He also recommended an MRI of my spine, but even that hasn't happened.



That seems absurd. How badly has your injury progressed?

Well, I can barely walk now, and standing up is a real task. I don't sleep much because of painful muscle spasms.

It's very frustrating to me because until I got hurt, I was an avid runner and taught yoga here at the prison. I can't do any of that now. Just walking to the chow hall is a chore. It's a nightmare for someone who was once so athletic. Frankly, I'm terrified I won't be able to walk anymore. Prison in a wheelchair . . . I can't imagine it.

Don't you complain? Don't they see you hobbling along?

The two times I've been seen by a doctor came as a result of filing administrative remedies and threatening a federal lawsuit. At least twice a month, I talk to the Physician's Assistant in charge of my case, but his hands are tied. He did at least give me a cane last month, and I'm trying to get used to that. At least I don't fall down as much now.

When I confronted the higher-ups to complain about all the delays, they usually just tell me to be patient and pass the buck.

I see that you have a brace on your lower leg. Doesn't that help?

Well, the brace is homemade, but it helps. Earlier this year, they agreed to refer me to an orthotics person, to get a real brace, but now they tell me he has been "out of the country" for quite some time.

Surely, there's more than one brace maker in America. I'm sure that the ACLU knows of a few such doctors, and might even be ripe for the challenge to locate one for you.

Yes, I thought that too. I'm filing paperwork on it. That seems to be the only thing they listen to. I really need a real brace, but they don't seem to care.

As for the ACLU, I haven't had any contact with them, but if they, or any other legally-minded groups, would like to help, I would be grateful. I just can't seem to get treatment on my own.

What is your status now? Are you waiting for further care?

Well, I'm now waiting for that MRI. The warden answered my recent written complaint about the delay by telling me that I have "been scheduled" for one, but the medical department doesn't seem to know about that. They told me I was waiting to be scheduled for one. Someone isn't telling the truth.

An MRI isn't treatment, though.

Well, I have been told that the MD isn't going to see me until I "finish the testing," so that's my battle right now. I feel like I'm running out of time -- if I don't get some help soon, I'm not going to be able to walk anymore.

It sounds like you're in some Third World country, waiting for a doctor to arrive by riverboat.

(laughs) Yeah, it sure feels that way. Except this is the Federal Bureau of Prisons that we're talking about, not a village in Africa.

What can the average person do to help you get some medical treatment?

I really don't know. Say a prayer for me, I guess. Nothing else seems to be working.


And with this, the interview concluded. Sangye grasped her seat to steady herself as she stood, took a hold of her cane, and made the laborious trek out of the FCI Petersburg Education Department. While the prison doesn't seem interested in providing her care, her friends do what they can to assist. They carry her tray in the chow hall, haul laundry up to, and back from, the Laundry Services building, and do whatever they can to make movement that much less obstructed. Sadly, without care, his condition may continue to degenerate.

My fear is that Sangye might take another tumble, but not get up or be even more seriously injured. Maybe this would force FCI Petersburg to treat her condition with the seriousness it deserves. Then again, perhaps they wouldn't even bring the medical cart over to pick her up, and just allow her friends to deal with it as best as they can, with more homemade solutions. But hopefully that story will never have to be told. Hopefully Sangye will be able to walk unimpeded once again.

(First published by The Huffington Post; used by permission)

Lawsuits Challenge Conditions at Tennessee Jail; Five Charged in Bribery and Smuggling Scheme

By Prison Legal News

In the wake of a Tennessee federal district court hearing in a lawsuit challenging conditions at the Maury County Jail (MCJ), the number of suits filed by prisoners against the jail has nearly doubled.

At a September 2012 hearing, prisoners held at the MCJ testified they were losing weight and that the facility was overcrowded and infested with brown recluse spiders. They also claimed their requests for medical attention were often ignored.

At least 23 lawsuits concerning conditions at the MCJ have been filed. County Attorney Daniel Murphy, however, told the federal court at an October 29, 2012 hearing that the jail had made changes in response to prisoners’ complaints; for example, meals were increased from 2,700 calories daily to 2,900. He also said new meal trays were provided, hygiene supplies such as toothpaste and shampoo have been increased, and old mattresses, which were worn and moldy, are being replaced.

Murphy further noted that the MCJ had formalized its grievance and medical request procedures and that 25 state prisoners had been transferred out of the facility to state prisons, to address overcrowding.

U.S. District Court Judge William Haynes commended the MCJ on taking action, but still was concerned about “the things that you can plainly see.”

“[T]he bottom line here is that protecting the health of the inmates is the most important thing,” he said. “You still have the steel doors on the showers that are rusted, and the vents in the showers are heavily rusted.”

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Florida Prisoner Awarded $1.2 Million for Burn Injuries

By Prison Legal News

A Florida jury has awarded a prisoner $1.2 million in a negligence suit against the GEO Group, the nation’s second-largest for-profit prison company, following a trial that was delayed more than a year after a juror said he was afraid to reach a verdict.

The case stemmed from an August 28, 2007 argument between prisoners Roy D. Hyatt and Rodney Smith in the dayroom of their unit at the South Bay Correctional Facility. Following the spat, Smith used a microwave to boil a container of water. He then returned to the dayroom and threw the water on Hyatt, who sustained first- and second-degree burns to approximately 30% of his body and lost the use of one eye.

Hyatt sued GEO in state court, alleging the company was aware of other incidents in which prisoners had used microwaves to boil water to assault other prisoners.

Hyatt’s complaint, filed by attorney Philip G. Thompson, claimed that GEO had breached its duty of care by allowing prisoners unrestricted “access to microwaves to boil water which could be used as a weapon against other inmates.” The suit also alleged that it was reasonably foreseeable that the incident involving Hyatt and Smith could occur, since GEO did not remove or restrict prisoners’ access to microwaves.

On May 10, 2011, shortly before the trial in the case was to begin, a juror told Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Glenn Kelley that he feared for his safety if he returned a verdict against Hyatt.

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U.S. Citizens without Remedy in Military Torture Case

By Derek Gilna / Prison Legal News

In an 8 to 3 decision, the en banc Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a ruling by Illinois U.S. District Court Judge Wayne Anderson, as well as an appellate panel that had partly affirmed that ruling, and held the judiciary should not “create a right of action for damages against soldiers who abusively interrogate or mistreat military prisoners, or fail to prevent improper detention and interrogation.”

The three appellate judges who dissented from the majority opinion argued that the plaintiffs, private American security contractors in Iraq, should have been afforded a Bivins remedy to redress their claims.

The dissent noted that both the facts and law provided an avenue by which Donald Vance and Nathan Ertel, employees of Shield Group Security (also known as National Shield Security) stationed in Iraq, could seek damages for what they contended was torture by U.S. military personnel.

According to the en banc decision, “Vance came to suspect that Shield was supplying weapons to groups opposed to the U.S.,” and became an FBI informant. However, after the individuals they had fingered accused Vance and Ertel of “gun-running,” they were arrested by American military officials in April 2006.

They were then “held in solitary confinement and denied access to counsel ... [and] interrogators used ‘threats of violence and actual violence, sleep deprivation and alteration, extremes of temperature, extremes of sound, light manipulation, threats of indefinite detention, denial of food, denial of water, denial of needed medical care, yelling, prolonged solitary confinement, incommunicado detention, falsified allegations and other psychologically-disruptive and injurious techniques.’” Vance and Ertel were classified as “security internees.”

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