Mental illness & medical neglect in prison

photo of Michael Barton boating

Our investigative report concludes medical neglect led to the death of an inmate who experienced mental illness and cognitive disabilities at the Oregon State Penitentiary:

Independent Investigation of Death of Michael-Barton: Mental Illness & Medical Neglect in an Oregon Prison

The death of Michael Barton

In a matter of weeks, the health of prison inmate Michael Barton, a 54-year-old with a history of mental illness and clear signs of dementia, steeply declined after he was struck by a common viral illness. Despite multiple visits and tearful requests to be admitted to the medical infirmary, he was continually returned to his cell. He stopped eating, was unable to walk or sit up, and ultimately became bedridden and unresponsive.

Nurses ignored his worsening medical crisis, blaming his pleas for help on his mental illness. Mr. Barton’s mental illness and cognitive disability prevented him from clearly communicating, accessing basic needs like drinking water, or performing simple tasks, such as opening an unlocked cell door.

ODOC nurses and doctors are the only source of healthcare for the thousands of individuals who are imprisoned in the state. Prisoners with disabilities often face barriers in understanding their environment or effectively communicating with doctors and nurses.

Solutions

The report calls on the Oregon Department of Corrections to hire an independent prison health expert to:

  • Review the investigations of Mr. Barton’s death,
  • Identify the factors that contributed to this loss of life, and
  • Recommend necessary changes to policies and practices,
  • Issue a public report on the level of medical care provided to inmates with mental illness and/or developmental disabilities,
  • Help ODOC implement needed changes within one year of the report’s publication.