How Loved Ones Outside Can Advocate for People in Prison


By Theresa Shoatz

From PHN Issue 25, Summer 2015

For readers who have family, friends or a partner on the outside to help them get urgently needed health care, here are some suggestions for those outside prison to try. Philadelphia activist Theresa Shoatz perfected these steps while advocating for her father, former Black Panther Russell Maroon Shoatz, a political prisoner in Pennsylvania. As she says, “I have a passion to keep him healthy because one day, we’ll get him out.”

10 steps for loved ones on the outside:

  1. Your loved one in prison will probably need to fill out a medical release form to let you access their health information. In many places, they can ask a counselor for this form.
  2. The first line of care begins with the incarcerated person requesting a sick call. Loved ones on the outside should ask the incarcerated person to mail them copies of all sick call slips or medical documents.
  3. Once the incarcerated person’s illness is diagnosed, loved ones outside can search for information about it from reliable internet sources. Some of the best websites are mayoclinic.org, health.nih.gov, cdc.gov, and my.clevelandclinic.org/health. Government, hospital, and university sites are the best. Once you print and mail this medical information to your loved one in prison, they’ll be equipped with questions for the doctor.
  4. Once the incarcerated person has seen the doctor or is denied a doctor visit, call the prison and ask the operator to connect you to the medical department. At many facilities, the nurses start work at 7 am, so calling at 8 am is best. Ask to speak with the doctor, but you may just get the head nurse. Calmly ask the nurse to pull your incarcerated loved one’s file. Ask what was the most recent procedure done on your loved one, and what time is best to call back for a full report. If you’re unable to speak with medical at 8 am, try calling again at 10 am, 11 am, 12 pm, and 1 pm. If unsuccessful, try again the next morning, and so on. Once you’ve gotten the full report from them, say you’ll call back in five days for an update.
  5. After 5-7 days, if nothing has been done, call your loved one’s counselor (if they have one) and the prison’s warden or superintendent (or their assistant) and ask them to please email the medical department saying to address this issue and call you back. Tell the warden you’ll call back in two days.
  6. Also after 7 days, write letters to everyone you’ve spoken to on the phone, to remind them of what they said they would do or to ask them again for the care that’s needed. In some states, they’re required to write back. Keep writing letters as you move up the chain of command, and cc everyone you spoke to before.
  7. If your loved one is still not receiving needed care, call the warden’s supervisor—usually a regional director. Their name and phone number can be found in the state prison directory or by calling the state’s prison administration office. Politely tell them, “No one under your command has done what they were supposed to do.”
  8. If a private company provides health services, call that company’s chief of staff and ask them to please email everyone you’ve spoken to, saying your loved one needs medical assistance.
  9. If that doesn’t work, call your state’s head of corrections. Say you’ll call back in two or three days: “I know you’re just hearing about this, and you’re busy. This should never touch your plate, Secretary, but I’ve tried everything.”
  10. Request your loved one’s medical records going back to when the health problem started (you may need an attorney). This can help you decide what to try next.

Tips for Those Outside:

  • Keep a written log of everyone you speak to, with the time, date, and what they told you.
  • Talk to staff and officials on a professional level. You may be mad as hell, but remain calm. Don’t tell a long story. And they can see who’s calling—be upfront.
  • Make sure the staff see your loved one as a person, not a number, by talking about them in a personal way. For example, “I’m concerned about my daddy.”
  • Ask the name of whoever you speak with, and how to spell it. Leave your name and phone number. Ask the operator for the extension number so you can call directly.
  • Keep a pen, log book, and your incarcerated loved one’s number handy in case medical staff return your call.
  • If your loved one has a counselor, get to know them and ask them for help.
  • Look up the facility’s drug formulary and other health policies, starting on the Department of Corrections or Bureau of Prisons website.
  • Be careful when talking about mental illness. Your loved one may be put in isolation if the prison thinks suicide is a risk. 
  • Before asking others to call too, ask your loved one if this will cause them to get too much heat from prison staff.
  • Once your incarcerated loved one has gotten the medical attention they needed, it might help to send thank-you cards to the staff and officials you spoke with. A good word goes a long way, and this could mean you get a quicker response next time.

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