These Women Received a Death Sentence for Being Sick In Prison

In the early hours of March 18, 2019, Hazel McGary’s cellmate woke up to find her on the floor.

This was all too common. McGary, an inmate at FCI Aliceville, a federal women’s prison in Alabama, had been having escalating health problems, including falling out of bed. Her cellmate had been taking care of her, escorting her in a wheelchair to and from the prison’s medical center several times a week, where McGary had been waging a monthslong battle with indifferent prison officials to prove she was seriously ill.

Something different happened that morning, though, when staffers took McGary to the prison’s medical services. She didn’t come back. 

Hazel McGary is one of three inmates identified by Reason who have died from alleged medical neglect since 2018 at FCI Aliceville. Numerous current and former inmates, as well as their families, say in interviews, desperate letters, and lawsuits, that women inside Aliceville face disastrous delays in medical care. They describe monthslong waits for doctor appointments and routine procedures, skepticism and retaliation from staff, and terrible pain and fear.

The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) listed the cause of death in all three cases as “natural causes,” according to public records obtained by Reason. That classification, while technically correct, erases the culpability of the agency. It’s like claiming a man accidentally drowned after you refused to throw him a life preserver.

But the agency doesn’t want to talk about what happened. When asked for more information, the BOP public affairs office said the agency “does not disclose the details of an inmate’s death.” The FCI Aliceville public information officer did not return multiple requests for comment. Reason has been waiting for more than a year for additional Freedom of Information Act records concerning these incidents.

None of these women was ever sentenced to death. But in Aliceville, that’s effectively the sentence they received—for nothing more than the crime of being sick. 

Although the severity of their offenses is irrelevant to their constitutional rights, all three were serving sentences for nonviolent crimes. Under the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment, the government had a legal obligation to provide basic

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