Category Archives: Inmate issues

Reader Question: Don’t Be the Decider

I work at a prison and your blog has been such a resource for our unique niche of medicine. There’s nothing like practicing “behind the walls!” . . .
Recently I’ve been incorporating more conversations about functionality and short-term/long-term goals and visits are mostly positive. However, there are the difficult patients . . . wanting to bargain “well if you’re not going to do anything, can I have an extra mat?” Or “Can I have a bottom floor restriction?” “Transfer me then!” “Give me insoles.” …and other requests like this. How do you recommend I come to an agreement with these patients that are difficult to have conversations with? . . . If by the end of the appointment we do not come to some sort of agreement, they end up right back in sick call with the same complaint. Then the cycle repeats. KR

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Why Correctional Medicine is often Driven by Lawsuits

Imagine, if you will, a nurse who is assigned to take care of 50 patients on a medical floor—by herself. Clearly, this is an impossible task.  There are just too many patients for one nurse to adequately monitor.  But this nurse gamely does her best.  Now let’s say that there is a bad outcome and an investigation.  Even if the understaffing problem is recognized, it would be easy—and tempting–to scapegoat the nurse, especially if there was no intention of fixing the staffing problem (“We can’t afford to hire more nurses!”)  Instead, the scapegoated nurse would be replaced by a new nurse, who, once again, would be expected to care for 50 patients.

Such were my thoughts when I read this article about the problems with the medical care for inmates in the Illinois prison system (found here):  https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-met-illinois-prison-health-lawsuit-20190103-story.html. The article says that there have been so many problems with medical care in the Illinois prison system that a class action lawsuit has successfully forced Illinois to make sweeping changes to the prison medical system.  What is not mentioned in the article is that similar lawsuits have happened before in other states and will happen again. 

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Transforming Our Approach to Chronic Pain

One of the most fearful and frustrating events in my correctional medicine world used to be when a new chronic pain patient would arrive in my clinic.  A typical patient would be a “Ralph,” a middle-aged man who has had chronic back pain for many years.  Ralph has had a couple of back surgeries, steroid injections and more than one kind of stimulator, none of which has been effective.  He arrived at the jail taking a long list of sedating medications such as muscle relaxers, gabapentin, and sleeping aids plus, of course, big opioids.  In addition, Ralph has alcohol abuse issues.  The reason he is in jail is a felony DUI charge.  Now he is in my medical clinic, looking expectantly at me.  How am I going to fix his pain problem? 

The answer, of course, is that I am not.  I am not that smart.  He has already seen lots of doctors, including pain specialists and surgeons, who have tried almost everything that can be tried and they have not fixed his chronic pain problem.  I’m not going to be able to, either.  In my opinion, the most common and serious mistake made in the treatment of chronic pain in corrections is when we imply that we can eliminate chronic pain. 

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MAT in Jails. Response to Reader Questions

My last post about MAT in jails generated a lot of excellent responses–so many, in fact, that I realized that my discussion of MAT in jails was incomplete. I would like to enlarge the discussion about the proper role of MAT in jails by responding to these comments. Before I do, I want to make sure that we are all looking at the issue from the same perspective. Please consider how MAT should be used in three different jails.

What’s the role of MAT in a small jail?
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Reader Question: How does a KOP Policy Work?

Hi Dr Keller,

I work in the prison system in the UK. I wanted to ask you if the prisoners have in-possession medication in America or is it all supervised? 
If you do have in-possession medication, have you seen or thought of a way for the inmates to keep the medication safe i.e. lock box in their room (this then highlights a security issues as can store contraband etc. in  lock boxes? Is there a feasible and reasonable way that inmates who want to keep their tradable medication to them self and not fear being bullied by peers for them? 
Any ideas would be greatly appreciated!

After doing research in my current jail. The percentage of people who actually pass random meds check is currently 18%. Now obviously not all those that failed had them “pinched” from their possession and most certainly commonly abused meds such as trazadone and mirtazapine have been sold as “sleepers” on the wings. But for those people who genuinely get bullied for their medication or do in fact get them stolen what is the alternative measure to help them apart from to put them not in-possession and supervise them daily? 

If you have any ideas I would greatly appreciate it.

Dez

Thanks for the questions Dez! In the United States, most medications are passed in a supervised setting. “In-possession” medications are referred to as “KOP,” which stands for “Keep on Person.”  I’m going to use this term despite the fact that not all KOP meds are kept on person. Different facilities handle KOP medications in different ways, which I’ll get into. Here are the basics of KOP medications:

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Grievance Responses PLUS Sample Grievance Guideline

Benjamin Franklin once famously quipped “nothing is certain but death and taxes.” However, Franklin did not work in a jail, otherwise he would have said: “Nothing is certain except death, taxes and grievances.”

On the outside, patients do not write grievances—they vote with their feet. If they dislike the medical care they are receiving, they will just go to a different doctor. In a jail, they cannot do this. We have a grievance system in Correctional Medicine because our patients cannot fire us (and we cannot fire them–discussed previously here). If jail patients are unhappy with their medical care, their only recourse is to write a grievance.

Grievances are not necessarily bad things. A medical grievance is sometimes the way by which jail patients alert us to significant problems that we may have not known about or mistakes that we made. I myself have had my butt saved in this manner—more than once! Many grievances are simply about communication errors. We have not yet adequately explained a medical decision to the patient.

Yet jail medical personnel often have a bad attitude about grievances. This is unfortunate, because medical grievances are an important—even essential—part of the jail medical system. I believe that the most important reason for the bad attitude is that people have not been taught how to write a proper grievance response. That, then is the topic of today’s JailMedicine post. Continue reading

Sample Guideline: Bottom Bunk Requests

This clinical guideline is intended to be used as a template to help clinicians and administrators create their own policies. This sample guideline must be modified to make it applicable to each unique correctional facility. This guideline is not intended to apply to all patients. Practitioners should use their clinical judgement for individual patients.

Introduction. Occasionally, inmates who have been assigned the top bunk of a bunk bed state that they have a medical condition that requires them to be given the bottom bunk instead. Since medical providers must be fair and consistent, it is important to differentiate medical need for a low bunk from requests made for non-medical reasons such as a desire for convenience or as a sign of increased status.

Medical need. Medical need for a low bunk generally falls into one of two categories: Patients who are unable to safely climb onto the top bunk because of physical limitations and patients who have a medical condition that might lead them to fall off of the top bunk and injure themselves.

Patients who are unable to safely climb onto the top bunk because of physical limitations include:

  • Obesity (BMI >30)
  • Advanced age and/or infirmity
  • Late term pregnancy.
  • Permanent physical disabilities, such as amputations, paralysis, or previous strokes.
  • Temporary physical disabilities such as a broken bone or recent surgery.

Patients who have a medical condition that might lead them to fall off of the top bunk include:

  • Seizure disorders which are current and ongoing.
  • Conditions causing vertigo or dizziness, such as Meniere’s disease.
  • Conditions which impair coordination such as cerebral palsy.

Chronic pain syndromes independent of other conditions such as those listed above generally do not constitute a medical need for a bottom bunk assignment.

Patients who have been successfully using a top bunk generally do not have a medical need for a bottom bunk reassignment unless their medical condition has acutely changed, such as with a traumatic injury. Example. A patient has been using a top bunk for three weeks. Now he comes to medical stating that there are several bottom bunks available in his pod. He would like medical to approve a bunk reassignment for him because of an old leg injury. The fact that he has been using a top bunk for three weeks indicates that this patient does not have a legitimate medical need for a bottom bunk.

Nursing Personnel may address routine patient requests for low bed assignments based on this guideline. If nursing personnel are unsure or have questions, they may refer the patient to a medical practitioner.

Documentation. Security personnel assign bunks, not medical personnel. Medical personnel are being asked if a patient has a medical need for a low bunk assignment. Therefore, medical personnel should document the answer to this question only.

Incorrect: “Bottom bunk request is not approved.” Correct: “This patient does not have a medical need for a bottom bunk assignment.”
Incorrect: “Bottom bunk is approved for medical reasons.” (Security staff may elect to place the patient on a single bed, a cot, or a floor “boat” instead of a bottom bunk.)
Correct: “This patient should not be assigned a top bunk for medical reasons.”

If a patient does have a legitimate medical need for a low bunk assignment, consideration should also be paid to the patient’s other housing needs. For example, a low bunk may not actually meet the patient’s needs; the patient may need a hospital bed. Patients who have a medical need for a low bunk assignment may need to be restricted to a bottom tier so that they will not have to climb stairs. Patients who are inmate workers may need work restrictions. If the medical need for a low bunk assignment is temporary (such as a broken arm), the bottom bunk memo should have a time limit.

Sample guidelines can be found under the “Guidelines” tab (above) as they are published. I view these sample guidelines as a group effort! If you have a suggestion, critique or simply a better way to phrase some concept, say so in comments!

Handling the Manipulation of Confrontation

You are seeing a newly booked patient in your jail medical clinic. He states he has been in jails before, many times, and is always given a second mattress and an extra pillow because he had surgery on his back many years ago. You note that the patient has not seen a doctor on the outside for many years, that the patient walks and moves normally and that he has a normal neurological examination. You tell the patient that medical does not give out passes for extra mattresses or pillows. The patient angrily erupts in a blaze of obscenities and threatens a lawsuit.

Manipulation happens when a patient wants something that they should not have (like an extra mattress and pillow) and will not accept “NO” for an answer. In my last JailMedicine post, I outlined the strategies patients employ in an attempt to entice or force practitioners to change a No to a Yes. This patient is employing the “threatening” strategy.

Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is the technique of deflecting and defusing manipulative confrontations. Notice that I did not use the word “defeating.” That is because the first and most important rule of Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is to remember that this is not a war or a contest! There should be no “battle of wills” between you and your patient. There is no winner or loser. Instead, you and your patient are having a conversation. The whole goal of Verbal Jiu-Jitsu is to avoid any kind of verbal battle. Continue reading

Manipulation Defined

One of the more common complaints that I hear from correctional practitioners (especially new practitioners) is “Manipulative patients are driving me crazy!” To be honest, I ran into a lot of manipulative patients when I worked in the ER, as well. ERs are the epicenter of narcotic drug seeking! But it is true that many of our patients in Corrections are especially skilled in manipulation. They have practiced this skill their whole lives and have become very proficient. Most people, including correctional professionals, are not naturally skilled at dealing with manipulation. This is often not a skill that we have needed before coming to work in a jail or prison. But once there, learning to manage manipulation is an essential skill if you want to be happy in correctional practice. I call the art of dealing with manipulation “Verbal Jiu-Jitsu.” In order to become a skilled practitioner of verbal jiu-jitsu, we must first start with an analysis of what “manipulation” actually is.

Manipulation in a medical encounter occurs when a patient wants something he shouldn’t have and won’t take “No” for an answer. If the patient wants something he should have-no problem! Or If the patient is told “No” and accepts that answer–also no problem!

So manipulation involves these two essential elements:

1. The patient wants something she should not have. This something could be an extra mattress, a special diet, gabapentin, an MRI, a referral off site–anything.

2. The patient does not accept “No” for the answer.

What comes after not accepting “No” for an answer is manipulation. Manipulation is the attempt to coerce the practitioner into changing a “No” into a “Yes.” Manipulation comes in many forms. Continue reading

Is this a Medical Refusal–or Manipulation?

My good friend Al Cichon writes:

Dr. Keller – would you consider a discussion of balancing the autonomy of patient decision-making and the risk to the facility for not providing appropriate care.
Examples
1. Individual is on disability but wants to sign a ‘waiver’ of responsibility so he/she can work
2. Diabetic (NIDDM) individual that wants to refuse diet and be placed on insulin so he/she can eat what ever they wish
3. Individual with a comminuted jaw fracture – cut wires on episode of nausea – now wants regular food despite oral surgeon advising limited jaw movement
Documentation of appropriate exam and advice to the individual is, of course, the foundation of addressing the issue – but do you allow the 100% (physically) disabled person work; allow the diabetic to sign a refusal of the diet & prescribe insulin; give the individual with the broken jaw (who is asking for more hydrocodone) a regular diet?
I believe your expert ability to address these thorny issues will help us all

Thank you for the kind words, Al! The issue you highlight is indeed a thorny one—when a patient wants to refuse strongly recommended medical care. Sometimes these are true refusals, meaning the patient understands the medical intervention being offered and truly does not want it. More often, though, such refusals are a form of manipulation to get something else that the patient wants. I would like to address these two scenarios first and first and then discuss your three specific examples. Continue reading