LYNCHBURG - With prisoners at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women facing medical emergencies, a federal judge is moving his court’s focus away from directly enforcing individual cases and toward systemic change to ensure the prisoner population as a whole is receiving timely and adequate care.
Attorneys representing Margie Ryder, who had been a prisoner at Fluvanna, were seeking emergency court intervention into treatment of her pulmonary arterial hypertension when Ryder died in July. Ryder was about three months from her scheduled release; she had been convicted of embezzlement in Fauquier County and sentenced in February 2018.
Her death, along with the deaths of four other prisoners at Fluvanna in the past five months, are evidence “that serious, systemic problems remain at FCCW,” lawyers for the prisoners wrote in a status report filed last week in U.S District Court.
Ryder’s case is part of a larger class-action lawsuit against officials with the Virginia Department of Corrections that was settled in 2016. The settlement agreement included 22 health care standards that Fluvanna needs to meet and provided for further court action in the event a prisoner has a medical emergency.
Compliance with the settlement agreement and Ryder’s death were at the forefront of a hearing Wednesday at the U.S District courthouse in Lynchburg.
U.S. District Judge Norman K. Moon said Ryder testified at a hearing in May that she was happy with her care and the new medical director at Fluvanna, and there was nothing to suggest she had any bad treatments after that hearing that led to her death.
The Legal Aid Justice Center's Shannon Ellis, an attorney representing the prisoners, added that Ryder said at the time that she was still concerned about failures in her treatment, namely in her day-to-day care.
Moon instead focused on the hiring of a quality improvement coordinator — who would oversee certain measures in the settlement agreement — as “one big issue that should’ve been taken care of a long time ago.”
He questioned why a coordinator hasn’t been hired in the almost four years since the settlement agreement and said he suspects the Department of Corrections considers it cheaper to let the case drag on rather than secure that coordinator, something the department’s attorneys denied.
Nathan Schnetzler, one of those attorneys, said someone was in that position temporarily, but the department has been conducting interviews and hasn’t found the right candidate.
Ellis said that while that position remains vacant, the prisoners have no adequate avenue for assistance with their medical issues.
Ellis spoke in court Wednesday about the state of care for Cynthia Scott, another prisoner who’s been a plaintiff in the case against the Department of Corrections since it was filed in 2012. She said Scott has been experiencing increased symptoms of a lung disease that can interfere with her breathing and spread to other organs.
Ellis said Scott hasn’t been tested or seen for her symptoms since noticing them in December and isn’t scheduled to receive any attention to them until January or February, more than a year later. Ellis added that Scott’s condition hasn’t been monitored in the meantime - as recommended by University of Virginia physicians - and that she has personally seen Scott’s condition decline.
Though he said he didn’t want the court to tell doctors what to do, Moon ordered the lawyers representing the department to look into Scott’s case within the next week. Schnetzler said they’ll also be filing a status report on the process of hiring the quality improvement coordinator.
Moon also said he’d set a hearing about bringing Fluvanna into compliance within the next month. Under the settlement agreement, the Department of Corrections and the facility have to come into substantial compliance for a year before the case is dropped.
Mortality reports for seven prisoners who’ve died since June 2018 will be filed to help identify the systemic issues that need to be fixed, though attorneys disagreed on whether they’ll be sealed.
Any future motions in the case will be heard within two weeks, Moon said Wednesday.