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A Death "Almost Too Horrible to Believe"

Prisoner in cell
Prisoner in cell
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March 6, 2008

We're going to tell you the story of Patrick Cavanaugh, a 60-year old inmate at the Ely State Prison in Ely, Nev. Patrick was an insulin-dependent diabetic who was imprisoned at Ely for two years. During his time at Ely, Patrick was denied regular insulin injections, which, as many people know, is essential for diabetics to lead a healthy life. As a result of this deprivation of insulin, he developed gangrene. This didn't go unnoticed by prison staff: the smell of putrefying flesh was hard to miss. The medical staff could have opted to have the decayed, gangrenous limbs amputated, which would have saved Patrick's life. Instead, they did nothing, and Patrick essentially rotted to death.

Patrick's story is just one of hundreds - 1,000 men are incarcerated at Ely State Prison, and many of them are suffering tremendously. Their pain was clear to Dr. William Noel, a local doctor of osteopathic medicine whom the ACLU's National Prison Project (NPP) retained to examine the medical records of 35 inmates at Ely. In his report, Dr. Noel writes:

"[T]he medical care provided at Ely State Prison amounts to the grossest possible medical malpractice, and the most shocking and callous disregard for human life and human suffering that I have ever encountered in the medical profession in my thirty-five years of practice."

To read Dr. Noel's report is to read a litany of gross abuse and great suffering. Dr. Noel described Patrick's death as "almost too horrible to believe." Today, the ACLU's National Prison Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of all of the prisoners at Ely, accusing the top state and prison officials of failing to fix a pervasive pattern of grossly inadequate medical care for prisoners.

Mind you, bringing this lawsuit is the last thing we wanted to do. We were notified of the conditions at Ely through our Nevada affiliate, who received calls from the family members of inmates who were suffering inside the prison. We retained Dr. Noel to examine the medical records of the 35 prisoners Ely officials would allow us to review. And Dr. Noel isn't some big-city doctor who would impose unrealistic expectations upon a small-town Nevada prison's medical staff. Dr. Noel is from Boise, Idaho, and practiced medicine in Ely in the early 90's; he applied the standard of care of the community to which he's very familiar when reviewing these records.

After learning about the horrific conditions at Ely, the NPP sought to remedy these gross abuses through a consent decree with state prison officials. In our decree, we merely ask for Ely to comply with the National Commission on Correctional Healthcare (NCCHC) Standards for Health Services in Prison, and hire a full-time doctor to work at the prison. (The last medical doctor on staff Ely, Dr. Steven MacArthur, was an obstetrician-gynecologist overseeing the medical care of 1,000 male inmates.)

But prison officials rejected our proposal; instead they promised to fix things, and transferred many of the inmates with the worst medical conditions to High Desert Correctional Facility, where medical care reportedly isn't any better. After months of inaction by corrections officials, and considering the ongoing suffering of the prisoners inside Ely, we decided that litigation was our best recourse.

You can learn more about the case against Ely State Prison at

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