A Cancer Grows | The Nation


A Cancer Grows

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Across the continent from Chapman, in the Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut, Susan Rosenberg faced the opposite dilemma in March 2000. A mammogram showed changes in breast calcifications. Rosenberg, a prisoner for sixteen years until she was released in January 2001, underwent a biopsy in chains, shackles and with four armed guards in the operating room. Afterward, the prison doctor verbally reported the results. "For a week, I thought I had breast cancer and was almost ready to have a mastectomy," said Rosenberg. A health advocate in prison and a political activist, Rosenberg demanded the pathology report, contacted lawyers and got a Congressional Representative to intervene. She discovered that she had "lobular carcinoma in situ"--a condition that requires close monitoring but not breast excision. After a second opinion (something rarely granted to a prisoner), the mastectomy was rejected. "I almost went and had a breast cut off unnecessarily," says Rosenberg. But most prisoners, she says, cannot round up the same resources.

About the Author

Cynthia Cooper
Cynthia Cooper, an independent journalist in New York City, is the author of Mockery of Justice (Dutton).

"All other issues pale before the issue of physical and psychological health of women in prison. If women are dying, what does it matter what other programs there are?" says Leslie Acoca, a former researcher with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency and president of In Our Daughters' Hands, in San Francisco. It is, says Acoca, "a tsunami."

Fears about breast and reproductive cancers run high in prisons, as in society, but the diseases receive dreadfully little institutional attention. Egregious violations of women's medical care in general were documented by Amnesty International in a 1999 report, "Not Part of My Sentence," and Amnesty issued an alert in 2001 questioning the unexplained death of nine women in the California system.

Cervical cancer took the life of Gina Muniz, who was 29 and the mother of a 9-year-old. Muniz was diagnosed and treated for stage 2B cancer in pretrial custody in Los Angeles, according to her mother, Grace Ortega. Upon sentencing in June 2000, Muniz was sent to the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. Chowchilla has a chilling reputation. A national consultant, speaking on condition of anonymity, described it as horrifying.

At Chowchilla, Ortega visited weekly, watching her daughter wither away--unable to eat, unable to walk, hurting. "That was the ugliest thing to see. It's so much pain in my life. They broke my heart. No one lifted a finger," Ortega says. When Muniz complained of severe stomach cramps, prison officers prescribed Metamucil. In late August, the prison rushed Muniz to an outside hospital, where intensive-care doctors found a large tumor in her bladder and her kidneys failing. She never recovered. A spokesperson for the California prisons declined to comment, and Ortega is still seeking explanations.

Effectively protected from public scrutiny, the barbed-wire medical system is uncoordinated, underfunded and has almost zero accountability. Doctors are ill trained and overburdened, and even competent ones can be trumped by correctional personnel. "It's like Alice going down into a rabbit hole," says Bonnie Kerness, a lawyer who directs the American Friends Service Committee's Prison Watch project in New Jersey.

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