A judge has ruled that a female federal inmate with breast cancer must be taken to her appointments for treatment in a timely manner after prison officials forced the inmate to wait nearly a year for surgery—precious time that may have already had a negative impact on her health.
Angela Michelle Beck is serving a 13-year and nine-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institute in Aliceville, Alabama. She was among 21 people indicted for taking part in a large-scale methamphetamine operation in Surry County in 2013, and she pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of firearms in furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. She’s not scheduled to be released for another seven years.
However, in August or September of 2017, a few years into her sentence, Beck discovered a lump in her left breast while in the shower. The 47-year-old, who has a family history of breast cancer, notified prison officials right away and was examined by a prison doctor on October 16th.
In December, Beck was examined by a surgeon and referred for a mammogram, which was completed on December 21st, 2017. The results showed several masses and cysts, and the prison doctor suspected cancer. But nobody bothered to get Beck in for a biopsy until eight months later, on August 28, 2018, despite the fact that she complained of pain in the area.
Dr. Karen Winkfield, a cancer specialist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, said a biopsy should be done within one to two months after a lump or mass is detected on a breast, and, in most cases, surgeons and oncologists should be consulted right away to come up with a comprehensive treatment plan.
Beck received her breast cancer diagnosis on September 6th, 2018, about a year after she first noticed the lump. She was told she’d need to have surgery immediately, but it didn’t happen. In October, Beck wrote this in a letter to the warden, Patricia V. Bradley:
“I have been waiting patiently to go and have my breast removed because I have been told numerous times that I am going real soon but it’s been since the end of August and my cancer is in stage 2. I don’t want my cancer to get any worse while I sit here waiting on someone to do what they are supposed to do to help me to get medical treatment … I am still a human being, and I need to get this done before it gets any worse.”
According to court documents, prison officials blamed Hurricane Michael for the delay. Beck was given a mastectomy on her left breast on November 1st, 2018. At a six-week follow-up appointment, she was told to meet with an oncologist right away to talk about how to keep the cancer from coming back, but she wasn’t allowed to go to that appointment until April 3rd, 2019. In the meantime, she found two more lumps in her right breast in January.
Winkfield calls the delays in Beck’s treatment “unacceptable and a substantial departure from the standard of care.”
The current state of Beck’s cancer is unclear. A judge ruled that she must be taken to meet with a surgeon about the new lumps in her breast and be allowed to have certain tests done in a timely manner to make the next steps of her treatment clear. Federal prison officials claim to have complied with this order. However, it may be too late to save Beck from more suffering than she needed to go through.
“The above course of action by the prison system in responding to Ms. Beck’s known breast cancer, punctuated by repeated delays in care, was grossly inadequate and more likely than not put Ms. Beck at unnecessary risk for the spread of her disease and ultimately, irreparable harm,” says Winkfield. “Further, there is no medical justification for the above delays which created excessive risks.”
Prison officials have not commented on the allegations or expressly denied them. In a separate motion, one of Beck’s attorneys asked that she be granted her release from prison in light of her medical condition. That request was denied, because her disease is not considered terminal, and because she poses a potential threat to society.
Prisoners may deserve the sentences they carry out for their crimes, and perhaps some of them deserve more punishment than they get. But withholding medical care from any person is inhumane. We can only hope the judge’s order has come in time to save Beck’s life.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?