Located northwest of Richmond, the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women (FCCW) is Virginia’s largest prison for women, with a large on-site medical facility. There’s been a long-running controversy about the quality of health care inmates receive there. In July 2012, five Fluvanna inmates filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Virginia Department of Corrections, the prison, and its top managers and medical officers, claiming “systemic, pervasive and on-going” health care deficiencies that violate the Eighth Amendment’s bar to cruel and unusual punishment.
The plaintiffs described “sick call” procedures where decisions on sending inmates to see physicians were made by people unqualified to do so, “pill call” procedures where inmates waited outdoors in all weather well after midnight to receive prescriptions, and of serious health conditions — despite repeated requests — left undiagnosed, untreated, or mistreated. The lawsuit also alleged prescribed medications were often not reordered in a timely fashion, FCCW doctors changed specialists’ prescriptions without communicating with the specialist or the patient, and FCCW staffers failed to schedule obviously needed specialist services.
In November 2014, a week before the trial was to start, the state agreed to settle. It would improve FCCW’s care and appoint an independent monitor to track progress. Within a few months, the state attorney general’s office was contending FCCW and its medical services have made tremendous progress and were working on remaining issues. The monitor was more restrained, noting significant progress but some unresolved problems. The settlement, requiring three more years of monitoring, was approved in February 2016. Wiley Rein LLC, the Washington. D.C.-based law firm which represented pro bono the inmates and the co-plaintiffs — the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the Legal Aid Justice Center of Charlottesville, donated its $575,000 in legal fees awards to those groups.
In less than a year, however, Fluvanna plaintiffs were seriously dissatisfied with the agency’s and prison’s lack of progress on reforms. They felt at an impasse when their demands were rejected by the state corrections department last May. Then, in the next two months, further deaths at FCCW seemed directly related to the claims of inadequate health care — and brought renewed litigation, plus soon led to replacing top leaders in the Department of Corrections and at FCCW.
During a five-day stretch last July, two Fluvanna inmates — Carolyn Liberto, 70, and Deanna Niece, 38 — died overnight in their cells, after each had complained of serious medical problems, for which they didn’t receive treatment. Liberto had high blood pressure and congestive heart failure, but FCCW routinely ran out of her medication; it also never sent her to a specialist for her extreme blood pressure. Niece, who had multiple sclerosis, one day complained of shortness of breath and chest pains and had difficulty walking. When she went into convulsions, vomiting and coughing up blood that evening, as with Liberto emergency oxygen was unavailable, and no nurses sent her to FCCW’s medical staff.
On Sept. 6, Fluvanna inmates and their representatives asked the judge who heard the original case and approved the settlement to hold the prison in contempt for failing to carry out the settlement agreement. The 48-page filing for renewed action also included evidence of other lapses in care at FCCW and state agency supervision. So far, there’s been no further action by the court.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to The Huffington Post, New York Daily News, and Prison Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and Prisonerresource.com.