It's an unfortunate enough experience to land behind bars, but if you have diabetes, you shouldn't have to worry that your life is at risk due to lack of life-sustaining insulin and care.
Unfortunately, that's happening way too often.
The American Diabetes Association is championing legal advocacy to fight these cases as they come up, and there is now a first-of-its kind law in place that could change how U.S. states train police and correctional officers regarding medical conditions.
But the news headlines too often show that the status quo is putting lives in danger.
Take for example these three recent news stories, including one involving a female type 1 who's now part of a class-action lawsuit aiming to change the system:
- Michael Robinson in Missouri: Arrested in August for not paying child support, and when he was in county jail, the officers refused his requests for his needed two insulin injections per day. Instead, reports say they put him in solitary confinement to silence him and let Robinson's blood sugar escalate to as high as 2,500 mg/dL (!) by the time he died from DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis). Robinson's family has created a crowdfunding page to seek justice for what happened.
- Carlos Mercado in New York: Arrested two years ago for attempting to sell a small amount of heroin to an undercover officer, Mercado was behind bars at Rikers Island. When prison officials took away his insulin and denied him access to it, he fell into a coma over a 14-hour period and eventually died. An internal prison and state investigation this past month found that the correctional officers in this case violated medical care rules and are responsible for Mercado's death.
- Taylor Gilmer in Virginia: This 20-something woman is serving time for conspiracy to commit a felony and conspiracy to commit first-degree murder at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. She claims she was denied insulin and diabetes care -- to the extent of starting to go blind from high blood sugars (!) Last year, Taylor signed on as a plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit against the Virginia correctional institute and their privatized healthcare contractor, and in November 2014 a federal judge declined to dismiss the lawsuit as the prison officials had asked. Instead, the judge stated that "serious question existed" about how women are treated in that federal prison, and the case should proceed to trial. The case remains open, according to the docket, but the lawyers appear to be discussing settlement.
Those are three of the most recent headliners on this topic, but the list of instances goes on, stretching back decades, it seems. The fact is that some of these stories get news coverage, while others don't -- and the consequences vary incredibly, from how people fare and if they survive long enough to be released, or whether their complaints get enough attention to be addressed at all.
Scary, given that stats show that roughly 5% of people incarcerated in state, federal and local correctional facilities have diabetes -- so that's about 80,000 people.
I remember the story from some 5 years ago of a Texas man named Roddy Pippin, who was arrested for stealing cattle in that state and sent to state prison -- where he was denied adequate medical care, including insulin. The Diabetes Online Community was all over that story, and back in 2011 Pippin was finally released thanks to an appeals court decision.
Sadly, many cases end on a much more tragic note.
Diabetes Legal Advocacy
The ADA does some incredible work on this front, and there are a whole bunch of resources available online for PWDs behind bars and their families, attorneys, correctional officers to refer to for help and information.
We asked ADA spokeswoman Samantha Boyd about the trends and statistics on these cases, and she tells us that the organization does track the number of people contacting them about a variety of discrimination issues, including care in prison and jail, and interactions with law enforcement. But she adds: "We have changed how we do this in the past year, so we are unable to give precise statistics."
She says the ADA's advocacy team has not noticed a big uptick in these inquiries. But there does seem to be more public attention being paid to these issues due to the aforementioned high-profile incidents involving the deaths of people denied medical care while in custody.
Back in 2012, we covered the state of affairs as to how law enforcement responds to people with diabetes during emergency situations -- especially those out on the road driving. That is something the ADA tells us overlaps with the topic of incarceration, and the organization is working hard to make sure anyone involved in law enforcement or correctional facilities handles diabetes correctly.
Boyd says over the past couple years, the ADA's education and outreach campaign has reached 400+ law enforcement agencies in 30+ states by sharing policy training resources, and they've educated attorneys around the country on the legal issues involved through focused webinars. The ADA is also compiling comprehensive written materials for lawyers, Boyd tells us.
Tragedy as Catalyst
In Florida, the story of Arthur Green Jr. is one that's sparking change. The 63-year old Green, who lived in Tampa and was pulled over in April 2014 for driving eratically, died after police pulled him from his car and restrained him -- not recognizing he was having a diabetic seizure and wasn't drunk.
He died while in custody, and Green's wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit against police. That also led state lawmakers to pass a bill earlier this year referred to as te the Arthur Green Act, which is a statewide training program for police to better recognize diabetes emergencies, avoid misidentification, and prevent future tragedies for people with diabetes. Florida's governor signed that into law in June.
All of these stories are heart-breaking, especially knowing firsthand how dangerous hypos can be and how horrific high blood sugars leading DKA can be when a PWD is deprived of insulin. The changes happening are encouraging, but it's a little unnerving to think that it's too little, too late for so many people.
The Diabetes Community and #BlackLivesMatter
Obviously, people in jail or prison are acccused or convicted of commiting crimes. But that's no excuse to deprive them of necessary medical care that puts their lives in danger. What can we do, as a Community, to help?
Recently, the family of Michael Robinson has been telling the story of what happened to him behind bars, and connecting that with the #BlackLivesMatter movement that's been sweeping the country.
While our D-Community hasn't jumped on this too much, we did take note of our blogging friend Lee Ann Thill's post titled, "The Diabetes Online Community, White Privilege and #BlackLivesMatter." She insists that our D-Community really should be paying more attention to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and explains how we can better connect some advocacy dots beyond just diabetes. That was a thought-provoking post, and it raised some interesting questions about how we all look at our particular advocacy issues and causes.
But personally, we aren't convinced this is a #BlackLivesMatter issue.
Maybe that's easy for us to say, since we're white and have never faced the situation of being denied diabetes care behind bars. But was Michael Robinson denied diabetes care because he was black? That is unclear, given so many cases of similar treatment to white people in jail.
The best we can do is look at it from the perspective that, honestly, ALL LIVES MATTER. And we sincerely hope that decision-makers, law enforcement and correctional facility folk take that seriously, too.
If you're someone with diabetes and are behind bars, you deserve adequate care -- just what the ADA (American Disabilities Act) requires, and what the Department of Justice and Bureau of Prisons has outlined in its official rules. Race, ethnicity, particular crime -- not relevant here, since we're talking medical conditions that cross all of those lines.
If you don't take word from us, check out D-peep Chelcie Rice's invocation on this topic: "We're All On the Same Team." Denying anyone insulin isn't OK, and if that investigation shows medical misconduct happened to Mr. Robinson (or anyone else in any situation, for that matter), then they need to be held accountable.
Roddy Pippin, the cattle rustler from Texas, said it well in a news report years ago "I thought I was sentenced to be incarcerated, not killed."
Exactly. Commit a crime, do the time. Just as criminals need to realize that truth, those people running the jails and prisons need to recognize that there's no excuse for unnecessarily endangering the health and lives of people behind bars.