Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

A typical prison cell.
Photo by Still Burning (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED)

Looking out my cell window, I sensed an atmosphere of quiet concern filling the housing wing.

As l exited my cell, a fellow inmate approached me and asked, “Did you hear about Ronnie last night?” I hadn’t. He explained that medical staff had to rush Ronnie Harrison to an outside hospital because he fell and broke his leg. He was also vomiting blood.

Ronnie was in his mid-50s and spoke with an Irish accent. He was usually gentle, a devoted Christian. He was easy to get along with. But he would stand up for others, becoming a raging bull when provoked. Because of his kindness and integrity, there was a group who genuinely cared for Ronnie.

For nearly a year we’d been witness to his declining health. He had complained to medical staff about his symptoms, but hadn’t received much care or a diagnosis.

Rodney confided in me often. It was difficult for me to watch him suffer, and even more painful because I could do nothing but stand by, helpless. Each time Ronnie went to the medical building for help, he would be sent back to the housing unit with only generic pain medication, creating a cycle of disappointment, anger and frustration. He hoped for some sort of reprieve — a diagnosis, treatment, anything. Several months passed like this, and Ronnie just got sicker.

On the day Ronnie was rushed to the hospital, I had seen him hunched over in a chair, motionless. He seemed to be in great pain or distress. I went over and asked if he was OK.

“No, but medical won’t do anything for me,” he said. “I’ve tried to tell them that I think I have cancer, but they just keep giving me the runaround.”

I could tell that Ronnie was struggling to accept what was to come, that his declining condition likely meant something was terribly wrong.

Two weeks later, we heard that Ronnie was back in the prison’s transitional care unit, which is designated for long-term inmates with debilitating medical conditions.

A fellow inmate was able to visit Ronnie. When he returned he informed us of the severity of Ronnie’s condition. He had bone cancer. That explained his broken leg.

We also learned that he was on a feeding tube. It was at that moment that I knew with certainty that Ronnie did not have long to live.

Around two weeks later, when the news came that Ronnie had passed away, all I could think was, “How could anyone be so insensitive to the care and needs of another human?” There are many of us inside that have health concerns, and as we age these become more serious. When Ronnie passed away, it felt like our fates had been sealed too.

Reflecting on Ronnie’s death, I can’t help but think about all the poor medical care I’ve witnessed in Missouri prisons. I’ve known inmates who were denied or rejected medical attention during the prison “sick call.” That’s when inmates can go to the medical building and explain the symptoms they’re experiencing to a nurse in hopes of receiving some type of treatment. In many situations I’ve experienced or heard about, we are denied care if our medical issue or complaint is not a life-threatening condition.

Health care in Missouri prisons is provided by Corizon, a private company that has been criticized for prioritizing profit over care. In Kansas and Missouri, over 200 medical malpractice lawsuits have been filed against Corizon since 2011, alleging that employees provided substandard care to incarcerated patients. 

As an incarcerated person, my greatest fear is becoming a name mentioned in an article written about dying in prison.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.