A federal judge didn’t make a decision Wednesday on an order that would guarantee medical care for a Surry County woman who has stage 2 breast cancer and is serving time in a federal prison in Alabama.
But the judge made clear that the care the woman, Angela Michelle Beck, has received over the past 18 months has been far from adequate.
“I remain very concerned about this case because of what happened in the past,” U.S. District Judge Catherine Eagles said during a hearing Wednesday afternoon in a federal courtroom in Greensboro over a lawsuit the woman filed.
Often, Eagles said, past behavior is a predictor of future behavior. Eagles did not indicate when she will make a decision but it will likely be soon. Federal prison officials who are defendants in the lawsuit have not specifically denied the allegations about Beck’s medical care but argued Wednesday that Beck had not exhausted all administrative remedies and indicated that they will file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit at some point in the future.
Beck, 47, is serving 13 years and nine months in the Federal Correctional Institute in Aliceville, Ala., after she pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and possession of firearms in the furtherance of a drug-trafficking crime. Beck was among 21 people who were indicted on charges of being part of a large-scale methamphetamine operation in Surry County.
According to a lawsuit filed last month, it took eight months for Beck to get an appointment for a biopsy, even though a cancer specialist from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center said in court papers that Beck should have had a biopsy performed within one to two months after she detected a lump in her left breast. Beck didn’t have surgery until two months after that biopsy, and federal prison officials failed to schedule a meeting with an oncologist for follow-up until five months after surgery to remove her left breast.
By the time she met with the oncologist for further treatment for the cancer in her left breast, Beck had found two lumps in her right breast, according to court papers. Beck now has a scheduled date to meet with a surgeon about her right breast and she faces the possibility that she will have to have surgery to remove the right breast and her ovaries, her attorneys said at the hearing.
Eagles considered two separate issues in Wednesday’s hearing. One was Beck’s attorneys’ request for a preliminary injunction so that Eagles can monitor federal prison officials’ medical care for Beck.
The other was a motion filed by Beck’s criminal attorney, James B. Craven, to have her released from prison due to her medical condition. Beck had filed for what is known as compassionate release through the federal Bureau of Prisons and was denied. Prison officials argued that Beck did not meet the requirements of having a terminal disease or a debilitating medical condition that prevented her from caring for herself.
Craven called the care Beck had received at the federal prison in Alabama “abysmal.”
“I truly don’t have much faith that BOP (Bureau of Prisons) will do the right thing,” Craven said, noting that he had written federal prison officials 10 different times about Beck’s medical care. “The fact that they didn’t respond means they don’t care. No one should have to go through what Angela Beck went through.”
Robert Elliot, one of the attorneys with the Winston-Salem law firm Elliot Morgan Parsonage that filed the lawsuit, said this is a matter of life and death. He said federal prison officials have continuously dragged their feet on providing medical care for Beck and they have not shown any sign that they won’t drag their feet in the future. That’s why a preliminary injunction is necessary, he argued.
Last month, Eagles had issued a temporary order requiring federal prison officials to do certain things for Beck’s medical care, including making sure that a test a doctor ordered had been done. Federal prison officials filed court papers late Tuesday in which an attorney for the prisons said he had called the doctor, who told him that the test had not been done because he had determined it would be of “limited value.” The doctor had said in April that he would order the test.
Eagles appeared perplexed about why a test that had been ordered by a doctor had not been done and why prison officials had not made sure that the test had been done.
Joan Brodish Childs, a lawyer with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, argued two main things — that Beck had not exhausted administrative remedies within the federal prison system and that it would not make sense for a federal court judge to manage medical care in a complex process that includes having to coordinate transportation for inmates to and from outside doctors.
She also argued that in the last two months, federal prison officials have successfully made sure that Beck has been taken to all her scheduled appointments with medical providers.
But Eagles said federal prison officials have been made aware of Beck’s concerns both through a motion for compassionate release filed last year and through Beck’s many complaints about her own care.
“That’s a hard argument to make that the BOP hasn’t had a chance to do the right thing,” she said.