People who are incarcerated are people, and people need healthcare, period. On March 21, 2022, Smart Justice leader Tracie Bernardi testified in support of S.B. 448, a bill that could begin to take control of healthcare for incarcerated people in Connecticut's Department of Correction. Here is her testimony:
Hello Senator Anwar, Representative Steinberg, ranking members Senator Somers, Senator Hwang, Representative Petit, and all the distinguished members of the Public Health Committee.
My name is Tracie Bernardi, I am a Leader with the ACLU of Connecticut Smart Justice campaign, and I am here to testify in support of Senate Bill 448, An Act Concerning the Delivery of Health Care and Mental Health Care Services to Inmates of Correctional Systems. The ACLU has submitted written testimony, but I wanted to take this time to discuss my own experiences at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic because I believe it informs the goals that this bill attempts to achieve. I was incarcerated in York for 23 years, from 1993 to 2015, beginning when I was 19 years old. I am now a Recovery Support Specialist, I work for one of the largest community reentry organizations, and I am in daily contact with many people who are still incarcerated, and hundreds of individuals who were released. I have a great deal of experience and knowledge when it comes to the “healthcare” system within the DOC.
Being able to access quality healthcare is a human right. Yet for a person who is behind the walls, isolated in a cell and hidden away, the reality is that people are suffering and being victimized by a “healthcare” system that does not work and in fact harms them.
I’d like to talk about Nini, a dear friend of mine at York. I am using a pseudonym for her to protect her privacy. She was a young vibrant woman who loved to exercise and do yoga. Nini began to feel very tired, lethargic and began to experience “cramps.” She saw a sick call nurse who told Nini these were normal cramps and determined that she did not need to see a doctor. We only had one doctor for the entire inmate population, and we shared this doctor with JB Gates, the male prison next door. Hardly anyone got to see him. Needless to say, the DOC initially denied Nini access to him and sent her back with the prisons cure-all: Motrin. Medical gave it to us for every ailment you can think of in prison.
For two weeks Nini continued to tell the staff she was bleeding, but no one took her seriously. She got so desperate that she finally took off her underwear and gave them to a CO. Nini’s underwear was covered in black blood. The CO couldn’t believe it and made a bunch of phone calls demanding that Nini be seen immediately.
Turned out that Nini had stage 4 Ovarian cancer. The next thing I knew, beautiful Nini was taken to a UConn hospital.
I did not see her again until I went to UConn for a medical issue of my own. Nini was a shadow of her former self. They said they did all they could for her and sent her back to York. The next time I saw Nini she was in hospice and allowed to pick five fellow inmates to say goodbye to.
Nini was only 28.
I’m not saying the DOC could have prevented her cancer, but they should have taken her seriously and had her seen by a qualified doctor immediately. But prescribing Motrin and sending a person back to their unit was the common practice.
SB 448 represents a beginning step towards providing health care for people who are incarcerated, but the bill still needs to be strengthened. The bill can improve accountability by establishing a commission to oversee the DOC healthcare process, and that commission must include justice-impacted people, like myself. The bill should also require an appropriate amount of healthcare workers. And SB 448 should ensure that isolated confinement is not used as a treatment for management of a person’s mental health, disease, or during an epidemic.
I urge the committee to support SB 448 and consider these additional recommendations that will improve access to quality health care for people who are incarcerated.
Thank you for listening to my testimony and I am happy to answer any questions the committee may have.