Cruel and Unusual: Serving a Death Sentence in a Prison Hospital
By Liliana Segura
Montell Johnson is a 42-year-old man who spends every hour of every day in a hospital bed. He can't move, and he can't talk. He eats through a feeding tube inserted into his stomach. Years of inactivity have taken their toll: "He has no body tissue or muscle now," his mother, Gloria, says. "He's very sensitive to touch, and so it's excruciating pain when you touch his body … There's nothing really there to protect him." He weighs 70 lbs.
Johnson suffers from multiple sclerosis, a chronic and debilitating illness that attacks the central nervous system and erodes a person's capacity for basic functions. He is in the final stages of MS and is suffering from a long list of related and other ailments, including hepatitis C, which threatens to take his life. Just over a year ago, a doctor gave Johnson less than six months to live. That he has defied the prognosis is undoubtedly due to the dedicated care of his mother, rather than the quality of his medical care, because Johnson is not at a hospital. He is a prisoner at Sheridan Correctional Center, in La Salle County, Ill.
Five days a week, Gloria Johnson-Ester drives from her home on the South Side of Chicago to Sheridan, two hours away ("two-and-a-half to three in traffic"). Since her son was diagnosed with MS in 2001, she has seen his health deteriorate dramatically due to gross medical neglect by the Illinois prison system.
"Inmates aren't considered a priority," she says, "but I always tell people, they are human beings. … Whether they are guilty or innocent, when they get sick, you treat them."
Johnson was convicted of murder in 1999 and sent to death row. In 2003, his sentence was commuted to 40 years, and on Oct. 30, 2008, Gov. Rod Blagojevich commuted his sentence to time served. This means the state of Illinois has no legal basis for keeping him incarcerated. But now he faces a new challenge: the possibility of extradition to California for different charge. For Gloria, who has been fighting for years to bring her son home for the last months of his life, this would be an unthinkable defeat.
"I know one thing," she says. "If they take me away, then he'll just give up."
"An Easy Conviction"...(see link to full article below)
J..."Montell Was Not Cared For Properly"
Johnson-Ester's first run-in with the health care provided by Illinois' Department of Corrections was in 1999, when her son was awaiting trial in a Macon County jail. She had attended a wedding reception in Grand Rapids, Mich., when she received word from her mother that Jordan had fallen and been knocked unconscious. She drove to the Decatur, Ill., jail, only to be barred from visiting him. By the time she saw him, it was Tuesday. "I asked Montell what they gave him. He said, 'Tylenol.' "
In January 2001, Johnson was diagnosed with chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. By then, he was at Menard Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison that Johnson-Ester describes as "a death trap." As the illness took effect, he was transferred to different facilities, none of which were equipped to deal with his deteriorating health. Between 2001 and 2005, he was not seen by a neurologist.
By 2005, he could not stand, walk, bathe or dress himself. Despite this, he remained in the condemned unit at Menard, designated a "high escape risk." Eventually, he was transferred to Pontiac Correctional Center, where, in February 2006, he was diagnosed with dementia.
Finally, in April 2006, Johnson was transferred to Dixon Correctional Facility, supposedly, the best medical facility in the Illinois prison system.
"I'd been begging to put him there," Johnson-Ester recalled. "But that was his death sentence."
It was at Dixon that Johnson developed severe bedsores, which Gloria discovered in 2006. He had been complaining about being in pain. "When I rolled him over," recalls Gloria, "I saw the wounds."
Bed sores are preventable but serious injuries that can be life threatening if left untreated. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Bedsores, more accurately called pressure sores or pressure ulcers, are areas of damaged skin and tissue that develop when sustained pressure -- usually from a bed or wheelchair -- cuts off circulation to vulnerable parts of your body." For someone who is bedridden, bedsores can form anywhere, from one's lower back to the rims of one's ears. The key to avoiding them is to move a patient continually throughout the course of the day. Nutrition is also important. But Johnson was getting neither. The result was Stage Four bed sores, the most serious and advanced stage, "in which a large-scale loss of skin occurs, along with damage to muscle, bone and even supporting structures such as tendons and joints."
"Montell was not cared for properly by the Department of Corrections," says Pearson, the activist. "Really, they just couldn't take care of him. They were not equipped."
After Johnson-Ester saw the bedsores, she became much more vigilant about her son's care. In August 2007, she started a blog documenting her visits with him, detailing his condition, the state of his care and her many frustrating interactions with the prison warden and medical staff, who eventually discovered the blog and tried to get it taken down.
Johnson-Ester's early posts described the strange visiting area allocated to her and her son at Dixon, a "laundry room with a washing machine, dryer and dirty and clean linen."
8/29/07 -- Today I visited Montell. When I arrived at the infirmary Montell, was in the gerry chair, and he looked very uncomfortable. He tried to change his position from left to right. He was nonverbal and tears were streaming down his face. The washing machine and dyer was running and quite noisy, and this seemed to be irritating him. I asked him if anybody had done anything to him and he shook his head as to be saying "No." I asked him if he had received all his meals, he shook his head from side to side.
Subsequent entries chronicled the many times she was denied visiting privileges for seemingly arbitrary reasons, as well as Johnson's transfer, in the fall of 2007, from the correctional unit to a medical unit, where he nearly died. A post from Nov. 6, 2007 describes the day his feeding tube was put in. The next day, she wrote:
The rumor I heard yesterday became a reality today. Yes, Montell was going to be taken back to Dixon Correctional Center sometime today. I talked with Dr. Amissi Patel, and she stated that Montell was too weak to have any more surgeries and that they were releasing him. I told her that with the feeding tube in him they were just setting him up to die. He wouldn't have been in this condition in the first place if they had taken care of him. I spent most of the day trying to contact people to have them stop this move back to Dixon. Montell just laid in my arms and held my hand … I stayed until the ambulance people came to get him and helped dress him for the trip back to Dixon. I left before they did because I couldn't take seeing them take him back there, and I didn't want him to see the tears streaming down my face. Lord please help us.
The last post on the blog, dated Dec. 19, 2007, begins: "My visiting privileges revoked today because of my concern and expressions of Montell's health care."
"The Last Thing California Needs is Another Sick Prisoner"
Anyone familiar with California's prison system knows that it is the last state that should be taking on the care of another sick prisoner. The state has been besieged for years by reports that its bloated prison system -- which houses 170,000 people in facilities built for 100,000 -- is overwhelmed by the number of prisoners in need of health care, many of them elderly. In fact, California's prison medical facilities are currently under receivership, which Johnson's attorney Harold Hirshman explains, "means literally that a federal judge has appointed a person outside the prison system to run the delivery of medical care." The current receiver, J. Clark Kelso, has described California's medical facilities as being "in an abysmal state of disrepair." (The cost of repair, as reported this spring by the Los Angeles Times, "nearly triples the $2.5 billion the governor proposed for new medical facilities in his budget submitted to lawmakers in January.")
"The last thing California needs, given that it's under receivership for failing to provide constitutional minimum health care, is another sick prisoner to take care of," says Hirshman. Yet, he says, "logic doesn't seem to have much to do with any of these decisions. I believe that it is simply that he's a murderer in California, so they want to take him back."
"We Don't Want Any Other Mothers To Go Through This"...(condensed)
Hoyt, who first met Johnson-Ester at Johnson's trial, has felt a kinship with her from the start. "I couldn't help that, because any mother in that position -- she didn't do anything. Even if he had done it, there was something that just told me. … I just felt so bad for her."
Johnson-Ester approached Hoyt in the courtroom. "She said, 'I'm really sorry if my son did this. I don't think he is capable of this.' " The two got to know each other little by little. Today, says Johnson-Ester "she's like a sister to me."
"It's not just about Montell and Dorianne anymore," says Hoyt, "It's, 'oh my God, we don't want any other mothers to go through this.' "
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