The recent suicide of Jeffrey Epstein while in custody at a Manhattan detention facility has focused intense media scrutiny into jail suicide prevention procedures. Suicide is the biggest cause of death in jails in the United States—by far. Because of this, all jails (including the facility where Mr. Epstein was housed) have a suicide prevention policy. Since the suicide prevention process was an epic failure at the facility where Mr. Epstein was housed, it might be useful to discuss how a jail suicide prevention program is supposed to work.Continue reading
I will be meeting a new jail patient with multiple medical problems today in my clinic. I know this much before I even meet him: He will almost certainly be scared, especially if this is the first time he has ever been to jail. He will likely be suspicious of me. He may even be downright hostile. I know this because this is the norm for correctional medicine. I can’t be an effective doctor unless I can turn this attitude around.
Consider the situation from my patient’s perspective. Prior to seeing me, he was arrested, handcuffed and driven to jail in a police car. Once at the jail, he was thoroughly searched (spread-eagle against the wall), fingerprinted and had his “mug shot” taken. His clothes were taken away and he was given old jail clothes (including used underwear). He was placed in a concrete cell. Now he is summoned by a correctional deputy and told (not asked) to go to the medical clinic.
He did not choose me to be his doctor. Though he doesn’t know anything about me, he has no choice but to see me for his medical care. Not only did he did not choose me; he cannot fire me or see anyone else. He may fear that I am not a competent doctor; otherwise why would I be practicing in a jail?
This is the attitude that I have to overcome. How to do this is an essential skill for correctional practitioners. And, of course, the single most important encounter is the first one. A negative first impression is hard to overcome–and I am already starting out at a disadvantage. What I have to do in only a few minutes is convince my patient that I am a legitimate medical doctor and that I care about him. I have learned in many years of doing this that these things are essential:Continue reading
Perhaps the strangest aspect of practicing medicine in a jail or prison is “comfort requests.” This is when an inmate comes to the medical practitioner asking for something like a second mattress, the right to wear their own shoes, a second pillow, a second blanket, etc. This, of course, never happens in an outside medical practice. When was the last time you heard of a patient asking for a prescription for a pillow? Yet such requests are extremely common in correctional medicine. You might think, “Well, just give them the second pillow—what harm can it cause?” But it is not that simple. Like every medical issue, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle these requests. To understand why, let’s consider the single most commonly requested comfort item in a correctional medical clinic: a second mattress.Continue reading
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
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.Continue reading
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.Continue reading
Quick! Name a book that describes the experience of being a medical professional in a jail or prison! . . . Can’t do it, can you? There are lots of books that talk about the life of a lawyer or a doctor in general. There are books about prison inmates and even correctional officers. But, to my knowledge, no one has ever written a book describing the experience of working as a physician in a jail or prison. Maximum Insecurity: A Doctor in the Supermax fills that void. This is a wonderful book, written by Dr. William Wright, about his experiences providing medical care to inmates in the Colorado State Penitentiary maximum-security prison. And not only is this the first memoir I am aware of written about correctional medicine, Maximum Insecurity is also a gem–funny, informative and engrossing. Continue reading
Well, JailMedicine is now over six months old and has been more fun to write and much better received than I had imagined it would be. JailMedicine has had over 30,000 hits! Thank you especially to those of you who have written comments. I have my opinions on certain topics (as you have read) but I realize that smart and accomplished people sometimes disagree with me–and sometimes they are right and I am wrong! We all learn and become more effective clinicians when alternative views are expressed and debated–so please comment!
What can I do to make JailMedicine better? Continue reading
In an effort to increase our visibility and make Jail Medicine more accessible online, we are pleased to announce that you can now follow us on Facebook. We plan to post special articles, videos, training information, solutions and answer the many questions we have been receiving and much more on the Facebook page, which you can find here: