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Delaware Prison Health Care: Unintended Punishment

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For more than two years, prisoner Ernest Lake has been confined to a locked room at Vaughn, with little to assuage the inactivity but a television and a daily 15-minute walk down the infirmary hall.

While expansion of the assisted living facility is on hold, the 58-year old Lake says he’s getting a stiffer sentence than the five years handed down, thanks to the current practices for managing the chronically ill in a security-first environment.

We’re talking about prison here, not a resort. Still, most Delaware prisoners go outside daily to exercise, socialize, feel the change of the seasons. They cross the compound for meals, leave their cells for education and self-help classes, visit the gym to work out, the library to study, or the chapel to worship. There are sports tournaments and art classes. Spending money comes with a prison job for model inmates.

Lake hasn’t had a single write-up or disciplinary action since he went down in 2008, although he’s doing time for plotting to kill his wife and two others—a charge he denies. Dependence on an oxygen tank exiles him from prison life. The oxygen, an explosive, is a security risk, explains DOC public information officer John Painter, so it can’t go anywhere the general population is. Lake mentions that DOC’s lack of accommodation for his condition caused the oxygen dependence.

The former chicken plant mechanic came to Vaughn with lungs riddled with bullous disease blisters, which came from years of inhaling welding fumes. His emphysema is courtesy of a pack-a-day habit. But he was getting by without oxygen in the compound until double pneumonia hit his lungs—which he says is the result of having to wait for 45 minutes in a chilly downpour with the healthy prisoners for the chow hall gate to open. Lake will be free in 14 months.

“I don’t want to leave here in a pine box,” he says from his wheelchair in the infirmary. “I want to leave on my own two feet. And I don’t want to leave in worse shape than when I came in. As of now, I am in worse shape.”

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