As reported by the New London Day, September 29, 2008.

York Honored for Medical Care

Doctors and Dentists Treat Variety of Inmate Ailments

By Judy Benson

EAST LYME – An abscessed tooth had brought the young woman in prison-issued T-shirt and sweat pants to the dentist's chair this past Monday afternoon.

As dental assistant Monica Ward fitted her with a bib and checked the tools that would be needed to extract the diseased tooth, the dentist, Dr. James Plessman, checked the woman's X-ray. In the halls just outside the dental clinic, other women in prison garb waited for gynecological exams, blood sugar checks for diabetes, routine checkups, tuberculosis test results and mental health counseling appointments.

”They come here with bad dental problems, GYN infections, they come pregnant and they come detoxing,” said Dianne Carter, nurse supervisor in the Health Services Unit at the state's only women's prison, the Janet S. York Correctional Institution. “It can be like working in an ER to be a nurse here, because you don't know what you're going to see.”

The place where they come, behind the barbed wire, security gates and armed guards of the prison complex off Route 156, is a simple concrete-block building identified only with a red cross painted over the doorway. Inside a staff of 120 nurses, doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, dentists, dental assistants and other health professionals care for the prison's 1,339 inmates' everyday and complex medical and mental health needs.

They range from prenatal appointments to eye exams to hospice care for the dying, from those that require extended stays in the infirmary or psychiatric wing of the clinic to one-time appointments for a sinus infection. At labs in the facility, inmates' blood and urine can be tested.

”The way the facility is structured, it's very supportive of women's needs, the range of services it offers is remarkable, and the facility is exceptionally clean and not at all depressing,” said Dr. Scott Chavez, vice president of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care.

Chavez has visited the York medical facility twice over the last two years, and recently was part of a committee that chose it for the National Commission's Facility of the Year Award. The award will be given at the commission's annual conference next month in Chicago. The York facility, he said, received top scores in all 72 of the standards the commission asks its members to meet. About 500 of the health care centers at the nation's more than 3,000 prisons and jails are members of the group, a voluntary accreditation board similar to those commonly used by hospitals and schools.

”When we give the award, we want to see consistent performance over time, not a one-shot deal,” Chavez said. “York has had a consistently high level of performance” in the six years since it joined the commission and sought accreditation.

Ronald LaBonte, administrator of the York Health Services Unit, said the facility is somewhat unique compared to other prison health centers because, as the state's only female correctional institution, it must serve a highly diverse population. That includes those convicted of violent crimes in high-security areas, to those serving sentences for more minor offenses in medium and minimum security areas, to juveniles and those awaiting trial. Since 1997, the unit has been run by the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

Inmates come to the clinic by self referral - once their request is checked and approved by their unit supervisor - or when prison staff directs them. Every new inmate gets a mental and physical health checkup and tests upon arrival. About 80 to 90 percent have abused alcohol or drugs sometime before their arrival, and 70 to 80 percent have experienced trauma and have symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, Carter said.

Dr. Steven Lazrove, director of clinical services at the health services unit, said the overarching mission of the center is to show compassion, caring and the possibility of physical and mental healing to the inmates, to help them break the generational cycles of family violence, abuse and neglect that often led them into lives of crime.

”Most of them are pathetic souls who's lives seem lost,” he said. “But these 1,339 women have thousands of children out there.”

In a typical month, nurses in the health unit treated 2,600 patients, and about 400 required doctor's care, said Angel Quiros, warden at York. And beyond the care provided at the clinic itself, health services staff must also work with prison employees and inmates to try to prevent any outbreaks of infections like MRSA, a staph infection that has been diagnosed among a few inmates at York and other prisons in recent years.

”We do lots of education about proper cleaning and hand washing,” LaBonte said.

The health unit serves not only to keep inmates as healthy as possible while in prison but also to provide the counseling and health care that will better enable them to manage their lives when they leave prison.

”We're getting them ready for society,” Quiros said.