Seeking info about medical care behind bars

How is care provided to prisoners, and who's watching?

  • Russ Walker
Pennsylvania’s resident four-legged forecaster issued his ruling early Sunday: Spring will come early this year. Out of curiosity, I wondered: “Does Punxsutawney Phil’s predictions tell us anything about who will win the 2020 presidential election?” Thanks to the careful recordkeeping of the Punxsatawney Groundhog Club, I was able to review Phil’s predictions going back to 1900. Looking solely at presidential years, I found that Phil typically sees his shadow. The only exceptions in the entire stretch from 1900 to 2020 are three years: 1988, 2016 and 2020. Hard to glean much from that, but no surprise … since Phil isn’t eligible to vote in our elections. –Russ Walker, PA Post editor

Courtesy of Stephanie Bayshore

Ashley Via Menser was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2011. She pleaded guilty to a theft charge totaling more than $100, and was sentenced to serve up to 10 months in Lebanon County Correctional Facility. (Courtesy Stephanie Bashore)

A 36-year-old woman who is sick with cancer was sentenced to at least 10 months in jail last week by a Lebanon County judge. Joseph Darius Jaafari’s story about the woman’s case got plenty of attention after it was published Thursday evening.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman took to Twitter to blast the sentence, offering to pay back the $109 worth of goods that the woman pleaded guilty to stealing. That, in turn, caught the eye of The New York Times and other media.

Here’s what we know about this case:

Ashley Via Menser has a long criminal history, so much so that her most recent shoplifting case meant felony charges and penalties.

She’s also fighting cancer. First diagnosed in 2011, medical records provided to PA Post by Menser’s family show that she is being treated for advanced ovarian cancer and a separate early-stage form of cervical cancer. She was scheduled to see a physician at the Hershey Medical Center on Jan. 22 to discuss and schedule surgery for her cancer.

Before her scheduled doctor’s appointment, Menser went to court on Jan. 22 for a sentencing hearing on the most-recent shoplifting charge. Her lawyer and her family believed the judge would delay the sentence until Menser could be treated, or sentence her to home confinement.

Instead, the judge acted within his rights to hand down a sentence to 10 months to 7 years. Menser was taken into custody and remains in the Lebanon County Correctional Facility.

The district attorney for Lebanon County issued a statement Saturday that noted Menser’s criminal history and the fact that sentencing rules put in place by the legislature obligated the judge to act as he did. The DA’s statement said the correctional system is capable of handling the medical needs of inmates, no matter how serious.

Menser’s mother visited her daughter on Saturday and showed the cancer medications Menser is taking to the corrections officers. She was told that Menser will be evaluated and prescribed the necessary medicine by the jail’s medical provider, a third-party company called PrimeCare.

PA Post is continuing to follow Menser’s case and others like hers. Our question include:

  • How are the medical needs of gravely ill inmates met?

  • How are third-party medical providers evaluated by corrections officials?

  • When a seriously ill person is taken into custody, what efforts, if any, are made by corrections officials to coordinate care with the person’s medical providers

  • What flexibility does a judge have when faced with sentencing a seriously ill criminal defendant?

Getting answers about Menser’s case specifically won’t be easy, as health care privacy laws restrict what corrections officials can say. But we believe the public has a right to answers about how the medical care system for prisoners operates and is overseen.

If you have information about cases similar to Menser’s, or want to comment on our coverage, please do so through our Listening Post.

Best of the rest

A screenshot from a flow chart posted on the website of the Pennsylvania Office of Records.

Government — whether in DC or the local borough — works for the taxpayers, not the other way around. And Pennsylvanians get it, according to the results of the latest Franklin & Marshall Poll.

The poll found that 79 percent of registered voters said they agreed with this statement: “Citizens should have the right to obtain any government record with few restrictions.” Only 19 percent said the public’s right to government information should apply “only in limited circumstances.”

The F&M survey is good news for advocates fighting to ensure governments across the commonwealth comply with the state’s 11-year-old Right to Know Act. That act has plenty of very good provisions. Most importantly, the law instructs governments to presume that the public has a right to receive records when requested.

But the law includes a lot of exemptions that tend to freeze citizens out of seeing what government is doing in their names. For example, pre-decisional documents are largely exempted, as are investigatory records (for both criminal and non-criminal investigations). We’ll be writing more about the Right to Know Act in the coming weeks as we approach Sunshine Week 2020. Stay tuned.


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