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Yvonne Abraham

Inadequate health care for inmate Sal DiMasi is a crime too many convicts suffer

It’s gut-wrenching to read the court filing describing Sal DiMasi’s attempts to get treatment for his cancer. Those eight short pages reveal just how far the former speaker and current federal inmate has fallen: too far.

The man who was once one of the most powerful in the state found himself suddenly at the mercy of various prison officials, finding lumps on his neck and pleading for months for treatment as he traveled from Kentucky to a Massachusetts grand jury investigating the probation department.

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According to the document, a request by his lawyers for more time to appeal his 2011 corruption conviction, the former speaker was so distracted by his untreated illness that he was barely able to discuss his case with his lawyer.

Even when he finally got to see doctors back in Kentucky, he was kept in the dark for weeks after his visits: “He continued to wait, scared, and frustrated—but nothing seemed to be happening.”

His wife Debbie, battling cancer herself, tried to help, but her husband’s doctor stopped returning her calls. DiMasi was finally sent for treatment on June 6, almost six months after he first discovered the lumps. His cancer has spread.

If all of this is true, it’s appalling. Yes, DiMasi deserves his imprisonment. He took payoffs, profiting from his power. But nobody should be treated this way. Not DiMasi, and not other inmates who have similar stories to tell. And they are many.

“While it’s true that some prisoners do receive adequate health care, it’s also true that prison health care is often frankly abysmal and results in needless suffering,” says David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project.

Federal prisons actually do a far better job on inmate health than most state and county facilities, say analysts. But that’s not saying much.

The problem at the state level burst into view last year, as the Supreme Court upheld a decision ordering California to cut the population in its grotesquely overcrowded prisons because it was violating the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The prisons were failing to provide basic care to inmates with serious medical and mental problems, leading to at least one avoidable death a week.

California is an extreme case, but there are problems in state and county prisons everywhere, including in Massachusetts.

“Just on this issue, failing to pick up the spread of a cancer, we see that several times a year,” says Joel Thompson, staff attorney at Prisoners Legal Services.

Of the 2,500 requests for help the Boston-based attorneys get each year, health care is the number one issue by far, he says.

Inmates call because they are stuck in the Kafkaesque system of requests, permissions, and appeals that can make just seeing a doctor – much less getting treatment or surgery — an act of superhuman forbearance.

They complain of medical personnel who, suspecting they want medicine only to get high, refuse to take their complaints seriously. And of prison officials who take years to approve surgeries doctors have recommended.

Some also tell of sympathetic prison officials advising inmates to stage collapses to bypass the bureaucracy.

“There are so many ways to get lost in the shuffle,” Thompson says.

None of this is proof of malicious intent. Here, as in most states, prisons are overcrowded and underfinanced — and health care is one of the few budgets that can be stretched.

And it’s only going to get worse. Our inmates are older and sicker than ever, as prisons have become alternatives to mental health facilities, and mandatory minimums have led to longer prison sentences.

The fact that DiMasi’s misery has plenty of company will be little consolation. He deserves better, not because he’s special, but because he’s not. Because he’s like every inmate — a human being.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com
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