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Prison Diabetes Emergencies Treated as Disciplinary Matters

Hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia both have symptoms that can lead to devastating and rather cruel misdiagnosis and failure to diagnose. The misdiagnosis or failure to diagnose a diabetic episode is often driven by prejudicial assumptions that the symptoms suggest misconduct on the part of the inmate rather than the medical emergency that it is. These assumptions may represent willful ignorance or deliberate indifference to the inmate’s medical emergency.

Symptoms of Hypoglycemia and Hyperglycemia

There are a number of symptoms associated with hypoglycemia. The Mayo Clinic list the signs of hypoglycemia to include shakiness, dizziness, sweating, irritability, moodiness, anxiety and/or nervousness. For severe symptoms of hypoglycemia, the list may also include clumsiness, slurred speech, difficulty speaking, drowsiness and confusion. Hyperglycemia often results in a fruity smelling breath.

For a lay person, these types of symptoms could suggest disciplinary issues such as drug or alcohol use, and/or an uncooperative inmate. Prison and jail personnel are not lay persons. Neither are the prison medical staff. Although it may seem at times to prisoners and their families that prison and jail staff have few legal responsibilities for the protection of the health and safety of inmates, this is not the case. Inmates have a constitutional right to necessary and adequate healthcare. Prison and jail personnel, including medical staff, have a higher duty that does a lay person.

Active ignorance of the signs of a serious diabetic episode is inexcusable and may give rise to a medical malpractice lawsuit against both the medical provider and the facility. It may also provide a basis for civil rights claims for cruel and unusual punishment and due process violations.

Duty of Medical Staff

CorrectCare, the magazine for the National Commission on Correctional Health Care (NCCHC), had a good article on the diabetes in prison in its Winter 2019 edition. The article suggests that correctional nursing staff should always act as the advocate of the inmate patient. Although a given in most nursing communities, the role of patient advocate is not always embraced by prison nursing staff. Instead, prison nurses too often adopt the prejudices, predispositions and hostilities toward inmates exhibited by guards and other prison staff.

These attitudes on the part of nursing and other medical staff in the prison can be and are far too often deadly. At a minimum, medical staff should recognize the symptomatic behavior noted above in diabetic inmates is a sign of a diabetic emergency, not a disciplinary matter that may then be readily dismissed as non-medical by the medical staff. In so doing, the medical staff should take immediate steps to address the diabetic episode.

Duty of Correctional Staff

As mentioned, correctional staff cannot simply bury their heads in the sand. They most certainly cannot interfere with medical care for convenience or other less innocent motives. Even in the case of institutional security issues such as lockdowns, there remains a duty to care for chronically ill inmates, including diabetics. For instance, a lockdown cannot be used to justify the refusal of emergent medical care. Nor can it be used in such a way that it will precipitate a medical emergency. In the case of diabetics, this means that inmates must be allowed access to food or insulin necessary to balance their sugar levels even during lockdown.

Seek Legal Guidance

Too often, inmates and their families simply shrug off their rights. There are many reasons for this including the learned helplessness and hopelessness of incarceration which in turn can arise through generational cycles of incarceration. In the case of medical negligence of an emergent diabetic episode, the inmate or the surviving loved ones do have rights and they should not be given up lightly.

Contact a law firm experienced in prison medical negligence. Collins & Collins, P.C. is very experienced in medical malpractice. This experience has resulted in a recent emphasis on medical malpractice in New Mexico prisons and jails. Currently, the firm has numerous active lawsuits going against New Mexico Corrections Department and its medical provider. There is no fee for a case evaluation and there is no fee or other costs to the inmate or family unless and until there is compensation for the injuries and other harm they have suffered.

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