Editorials

Looking for answers

NO INFORMATION: Carolyn Dawson has received very little information about her son, who was injured in prison.
NO INFORMATION: Carolyn Dawson has received very little information about her son, who was injured in prison. BEN TWINGLEY

Julie Jones, the state Department of Corrections’ new chief, talks proudly, assertively about the gusts of fresh air and transparency that she says she has brought to the insular, insulated and troubled agency.

“Every email from a concerned family member — mostly mothers — advocates, human-rights folks gets a response from me,” Ms. Jones told the Editorial Board. “I make sure they get resolution.”

That’s great, refreshing to hear. But Carolyn Dawson is one mom who is still looking for some answers from the DOC. She deserves to find out just what happened to her son, Shurick Lewis, an inmate at Columbia Correctional Institution. As detailed by Herald reporter Julie K. Brown, Ms. Dawson’s son, more than three weeks ago, was allegedly kicked and stomped by three corrections officers and left bloodied and battered on the floor of his cell.

The three corrections officers have been suspended; the warden, Monroe Barnes, was forced to retire. Credit Ms. Jones for bringing swifter penalty to DOC employees who are supposed to keep the peace in their difficult jobs, but who break the rules and create mayhem instead. In the past, too many violent staffers — including those culpable for inmates’ deaths — were allowed to show up for work day after day, as their supervisors looked the other way.

But there are still loose ends that Ms. Jones should work diligently to tie up. DOC has left Ms. Dawson, as of late last week, in the dark about her son’s medical condition and where he’s being hospitalized. The incident report is heavily redacted, revealing practically nothing. Ms. Dawson wasn’t even told of the incident that injured her son until well after it happened.

It’s downright cruel to withhold such information from family members who are worried sick. And Ms. Dawson is far from the first relative to be left in the dark by DOC.

Secretary Jones says that her hands are tied by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — HIPAA — and that her first concern is security. “Inmate family dynamics are complex. When an inmate goes to the hospital ... we have taken them to an unsecure environment,” Ms. Jones told the Editorial Board. In other words, families might help the inmate escape, putting others in danger. Valid point.

Second, she said, HIPAA rules say that information cannot be disseminated without a patient’s consent, in the form of a medical release. Fair enough.

But bureaucracy should not trump compassion and common sense time after time. Ms. Jones says that she is looking for solutions. She should do so quickly.

When corrections officers — or other inmates, for that matter — go violently rogue, the department only compounds the situation by giving families the silent treatment.

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