Dead prisoners don’t complain about their medical treatment

In April 2013, the Dominion Post ran a story about the appalling medical treatment in prison of Stephen McMurtrie.  McMurtrie injured his shoulder working out in the prison yard. He was sent to hospital for an x-ray where he was told he would need an operation. They gave him opiate pain medication (tramadol) and told to come back for the operation in a month.

No you can’t have pain relief

Corrections management doesn’t like prisoners having opiates – no matter how much pain they’re in. They even made up a ‘Medicines Policy’ to discourage prison doctors from prescribing opiates, benzodiazepines and other drugs with potential for abuse. So when Mr McMurtrie returned to prison, the prison doctor took him off the tramadol and replaced it with voltaren and ibuprofen.

Over the next five days, Mr McMurtrie became increasingly unwell. The nurses ignored him. Eventually a prison officer took him to see the prison doctor.  When he got there, he vomited up a couple of litres of blood and collapsed on the floor. The doctor called an ambulance and Mr McMurtrie was taken to hospital in a coma. He spent two weeks in intensive care and nearly died. He was handcuffed to an officer for the entire two weeks – even though he was unconscious. Altogether, he spent five weeks in hospital before he was well enough to go back to prison.

Voltaren is known to cause gastrointestinal bleeding in some patients. It should not be taken by patients with liver cirrhosis, ulcers, or an infection. Mr McMurtrie had all three of these conditions. Three months later, Mr McMurtrie is still not able to walk properly and is now in a significantly reduced state of health.

No you can’t have another mattress

Here’s another tragic case. William Allen is 44 years old and was sent to prison for possession of cannabis. When he was 19, his ankle was crushed when he was run over by a truck. It never healed properly and since then Mr Allen has had over 50 operations on his leg. It took seven years before the leg was strong enough so that he could walk again. His most recent operation was in 2012, one week before he was sentenced to prison on his current offending.  Surgeons cut the leg open and put antibiotic pellets inside the bone.  He was on an antibiotic drip for a week afterwards and the dressings had to be changed every day.  He was given morphine to cope with the pain.

He was sentenced to prison the day after he was discharged from hospital.  Once in prison, nursing staff didn’t bother to change the dressings on his wounds as required; it began to smell, increasing the risk of external infection, on top of the internal bone infection. Mr Allen gets only half the pain medication he is allowed; the medication that he does receive is given to him too early in the day with the result that he gets pain at night and doesn’t get much sleep. He can’t even get comfortable. He sleeps on a mattress which is only two inches thick – on a concrete base. He asked for a second mattress to provide some relief – but that was denied. It seems prison management want him to suffer.

Mr Allen has also missed follow-up appointments with infection specialists  in the community because prison staff are  too busy to take him – or just don’t care. After 12 months in prison, he is still on two different antibiotics. If the infection spreads, he could die.  His leg is permanently twisted and he has been told he needs yet another operation so he is thinking about having the leg amputated instead. Mr Allen wrote a letter of complaint to the Health & Disability Commission – but the prison opened it up, didn’t like what he wrote and never sent it.

Complaints up by over 60%

Potentially there are three agencies prisoners can complain to about their medical treatment in prison – the Corrections Inspectorate, the Health & Disability Commission or the Ombudsman. There’s not much point in complaining to Corrections Inspectors. In 2012 the Department’s Annual Report showed that very few complaints were made to the Inspectorate about prison health services.  Of those that were made, not one was found to be ‘justified’. The obvious conclusion is that prisoners complain to external agencies rather than complain to the Inspectorate because they know the Inspectorate will not investigate their complaints properly.

I wrote to the Health & Disability Commission asking how many complaints they receive from prisoners each year – but they claimed they don’t keep records on that. The Ombudsman was more helpful. In 2011 the Ombudsman received 259 complaints about prison health services. In 2012, there were 418 complaints – up 62% in just one year. Of course these complaints come from the prisoners that are still alive. They ones that die don’t bother and since 2008, 75 prisoners have died. Not surprisingly, not one of them made a complaint about their medical treatment.

6 thoughts on “Dead prisoners don’t complain about their medical treatment

  1. Thanks Roger. You raise these issues our society would prefer you didn’t in a clear, rational and non-emotional way even though they reach to the heart of our vulnerability. Thank you.


    1. One of the reasons it happens is because New Zealand is a very punitive society. We seem to like locking people up. And out of sight is out of mind – we don’t seem to care how prisoners are treated.


  2. One could argue “If you can’t do the time don’t commit the crime”, “lock them up & throw away the key” & “Why waste more taxpayer dollars on criminals”, etc.. Such proponents choose to ignore the fact that there are a huge number of innocent people in our prisons – and an even greater number who are in prison for “victimless” (politically expedient), or petty crimes. But there is an even greater crime – that of crimes against humanity which you so ably highlight here. Every prisoner, whether innocent or guilty, political or criminal, is someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister or father, mother. That one person dies every three weeks (and dozens more suffer) while in their care should be cause for concern; the humane treatment of persons placed in their care should be the number one priority of the Department of Corrections. Who watches the watchers?


  3. How can these so called nurses call themselves nurses? They need reported to the Nursing Council and they need to get there registrations taken off them. They are despicable people taking out their power and control issues on vulnerable people. What they are doing is more criminal then probably what the so called prisoners have done. Who is governing these people in the Health Centres or are the Managers there as dishonest and unprofessional as the so called nurses?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s