Incarcerated People Have Rights to Health Care. In the Pandemic, Many Say They Didn't Get It In Time


VOX: Victoria Law | June 28, 2022


This story is part of The Aftermath, a Vox series about the collateral health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in communities around the US. This series is supported in part by the NIHCM Foundation.


When 25-year-old Clayton McCray was sent to jail in September 2019, he had no idea the detention would end up costing him his leg. But that’s what happened, in large part because the pandemic exacerbated his poor medical treatment behind bars.


A shooting injury eight years earlier had damaged his spine, initially leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. After surgery and years of physical therapy, he could once again jump, swim, and play basketball. “I fought hard to get to where I was,” he told Vox.


But he still had a condition known as “drop foot,” or foot dragging. He needed orthotic insoles, regular treatment to remove dead tissue, and daily wound cleanings; without them, he was vulnerable to developing open wounds, and even bone infections.


When the pandemic hit, McCray was still in Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County jail awaiting a hearing for alleged drug possession. Suddenly, his already-spotty medical care became even sparser. By June 2020, he needed a wheelchair. Sometimes he couldn’t hop or crawl the short distance from his bunk to the toilet and urinated on himself. Meanwhile, the smell from his untreated wound filled the cell.


Jail staff did not allow a specialist from the local hospital to examine McCray’s infected foot in person, he has claimed. “They blamed Covid,” McCray said.


By September, the infection had progressed so far that his right leg had to be amputated below the knee.


Health care in US jails and prisons was generally abysmal before the pandemic, and it appears to have fallen further, even for those who were not among the astronomical number of people sickened or killed by Covid-19 while incarcerated.


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