When Someone on the Outside Has Your Back

by Theresa Shoatz and Suzy Subways

From PHN Issue 33, Summer 2017

Sometimes it’s hard to get medical care when you need it behind the walls. For readers who have family, friends or a partner on the outside to help, here are some suggestions for them to try. You may want to clip this article and send it to them.

Getting a medical release form in prison:

If you are in prison and a loved one on the outside can advocate for you, the first step is to get a release form so your loved one can talk about your health with the prison staff. Usually, you can get one from a counselor or health staff. Then you can fill it out and send it to your loved one on the outside.

You may also want to consider giving your loved one power of attorney. This allows them to make legal and financial decisions (and decisions about your children) for you. However, this could allow the person to make decisions you disagree with, so it’s always wise to be very careful about what you sign. The benefit of granting your loved one power of attorney is that it could give them more leeway when they talk to medical staff on your behalf. And, should something happen to you, if your loved one gets power of attorney, they can make sure to receive your body.

Finding information on the outside:

If your loved one is in prison and is not getting the medical care they need, the best way to advocate for them is to call the medical staff. If your loved one is in a state prison, try searching your state’s website for the names and phone numbers of medical staff at your loved one’s facility. If your loved one is in a federal prison, try searching the Bureau of Prisons website (bop.gov). You can also call the prison’s switchboard or read the orientation handbook.

You may be able to find rules and guidelines on the website of the state prison system or bop.gov. These can give you information about which medications can be provided, rules for visiting very sick patients in prison, and clinical practice guidelines for how medical staff should treat particular health conditions.

It can help if your loved one in prison mails you copies of all sick call slips and medical documents. You can search for information about their illness on reliable internet sources such as health.nih.gov, cdc.gov, and my.clevelandclinic.org/health. Government, hospital, and university websites are the best. Once you print and mail the information you find to your loved one in prison, they’ll be equipped with questions for the doctor.

Things to remember before calling:

We have so many emotions when our loved one is sick behind bars. Your loved one is telling you how awful it is, and you want to be able to help. But you’ll be better able to help if you maintain control of your emotions when on the phone with medical staff. If you get upset with them, they will probably hang up on you. You won’t get much information that way. Be professional with them. You have to be able to maintain your emotions even when you know they’re lying to you.

Ask the name of whoever you speak with, and how to spell it. Leave your name and phone number. Try to keep a written log of everyone you speak to, with the time, date, and what they told you.

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.” If your loved one has a counselor, get to know them and ask them for help. Be careful when talking about mental illness. Your loved one may be put in isolation if the prison thinks suicide is a risk.

Making the call:

Call early in the morning. At many facilities, the nurses start work at 7 am, so calling at 8 am is best.

First, ask for the doctor who is handling your loved one’s health issue. If they say the doctor is not available, ask for the doctor’s name. If you can’t speak with the doctor, ask, “Who’s the head nurse?” If they ask you why you want to know, respond, “I’m calling about my girlfriend [for example] who has a medical issue.”

Ask the nurse, “Can you please pull my loved one’s medical file for me?” If they say they’re busy, offer to call back after their lunch break or first thing the next morning. Here are some useful things to say:

  • “My first concern is my loved one. Would you like to call me back this afternoon once you pull that chart?”
  • “What time should I call back?”
  • “I know you’re busy, so I won’t hold you up right now. I’ll call back after noon.”

Once they have pulled your loved one’s file, start by asking, “What was the most recent procedure done?” If there is a test or treatment that your loved one needs but has not received, explain this to the staff politely.    

Keep a pen, log book, and your incarcerated loved one’s number handy in case medical staff return your call.

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