The medical staff serving the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison population is dangerously understaffed and underfunded, lacking functional equipment and routinely running out of supplies as basic as Neosporin for wound care and heart monitoring equipment.
About 10 members of the medical staff appeared Wednesday before the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, beseeching it for additional resources. They said they cannot continue at their current rate of understaffing. They said they are burned out and in need of a life jacket.
Dr. Rani Whitfield, a contract physician who has worked at the prison for 16 years, said there has been a “significant decline in the quality of care delivered to the inmate population over the past six or seven years.”
A decline in the number of nurses, low salaries, lack of supplies and the closure of the Earl K. Long Medical Center and the Baton Rouge General-Mid City emergency room, where inmates were sent for specialized care, all have contributed to the critical conditions at the prison.
“It’s true that we have a sicker inmate population, and without proper resources, supplies and more boots on the ground in the form of nursing staff, we are unable to efficiently care for the patients’ increasing morbidity, mortality and, ultimately, liability,” Whitfield said.
There are 25 nurses on staff, a primary care doctor, a surgeon who is also a urologist, a dentist, a psychiatrist and an internist who comes three or four times a month to manage only HIV patients, Whitfield said. They are tasked with treating the prison’s 1,600 inmates.
Four nurses are out on stress leave, nursing director Beatrice Stines said.
“I’m staying two and three hours over a 12-hour shift so that I can complete my work,” nurse Vincent Bradley said.
Gracie Galmon, who oversees the Parish Prison’s medical billing, said she bills about 100 patients a day. She said she is prepared to take a monetary loss and leave her job because she is so overworked.
Other nurses told tales of bringing their own blood pressure cuffs from home, and they said their EKG machines are so faulty it is hard to tell if a patient is having a heart attack.
Whitfield said he brought his own equipment for issues like removing toenails, removing sutures, performing laceration repairs and removing foreign objects from ears.
He added many of the tools they need are not expensive, but they have no control over purchasing supplies.
Whitfield said their top need is more nurses, who are the “backbone” of the medical team. He said they need 35 to 40 nurses to properly serve the prison.
There is supposed to be a minimum of five nurses on staff per shift, but there have sometimes been as few as one or two nurses on staff to manage an entire shift.
The jobs are hard to fill, staff said, because the pay is low. Starting salaries for nurses, regardless of experience, are $17 to $18 per hour and the highest-paid nurse earns less than $25 per hour.
“I agree with the staff; they’re completely right,” EMS Administrator Chad Guillot said. “They are overworked; they’re not paid well enough.”
City-parish Chief Administrative Officer William Daniel said the city-parish hopes to hire a firm to study the problems, but Metro Councilwomen Donna Collins-Lewis and Chauna Banks-Daniel said that’s not a quick enough solution.
“We’ve gotta do something; we’ve gotta get this figured out,” Collins-Lewis said. “It’s not fair to them.”
Collins-Lewis added a plea to the doctors and nurses who said they are overworked: “Please, don’t give up.”