JOHN KIRIAKOU: Dying by Callous Disregard

The stories of Lucas Bellamy and Brandon Clay Dodson show how easy it is to die a medically preventable death in U.S. prisons.

Point Lookout II prisoner cemetery in Angola, Louisiana, 2009. (Lee Honeycutt, “Cemetery Crosses,” Wikiimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

By John Kiriakou
Special to Consortium News

I’ve had a rough week.

Last Saturday I worked all day writing and gathering documents for a court case. It was a completely normal and uneventful day, and I went to bed at 10 o’clock.

At 2:05 am, my phone alarm went off to tell me that my blood sugar was too low, so I got up to get something to eat. I don’t remember getting downstairs, but I woke up half an hour later, lying on the kitchen floor after having passed out. I was soaked in sweat, as if I had taken a shower with my clothes on. 

I have two housemates and I began calling for help. Unfortunately, nobody heard me. I tried pulling myself up, but I passed out again. 

I woke up at 3:30 in the same place and began calling for help again. This time one of my housemates heard me. He came down, helped me onto the couch, and got me a soda to raise my blood sugar level.

But that turned out to not be the problem. When my blood sugar crashes, it only takes five minutes to right itself. This was going into the second hour. After yet another hour on the couch, I asked him to help me get back into bed. But as soon as I tried to get up I passed out again. He called 911.

I have no memory of being taken to the Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. The only thing I recall is a fleeting memory of a doctor shouting my name and saying, “John, can you hear me? We’re taking you straight into surgery, ok?” I mumbled “Ok.” 

I came out of it at 10:30 am. The surgeon and the internal medicine physician came to see me later in the day. They said that I had a “massive” blood clot on my esophagus sitting on top of an equally massive bleeding ulcer. It had apparently been caused by 18 years of daily baby aspirin. 

I had a second surgery on Tuesday to remove a second clot and to laser the ulcer, and I came home on Wednesday after having three blood transfusions and three infusions of iron. It was the closest I had ever come to death, and I have my housemates to thank for literally saving my life.

Not So Lucky

I was lucky. But what would have happened to somebody in a similar circumstance in prison, where nobody cares if you live or die and where medical care varies from substandard to nonexistent? 

I think the answer is an easy one. 

Look at the case of Lucas Bellamy.

He had been arrested in Minnesota on suspicion of vehicle theft. Immediately before the arrest, he ate a bag of drugs in an effort to fool police into thinking that he didn’t have any.

But he immediately began feeling sick. Jail officers took him to a local hospital, where he was treated. The doctors there told the jailers to return him to the hospital if he became ill again.

Bellamy never showed any improvement. And indeed, he began vomiting as soon as he got back to his cell. By evening he was refusing food and crawling around his cell as a guard and nurse stood and watched him. By noon the next day, he was dead on the floor.

Whistleblower Reality Winner had a health-related experience that made her appreciate exactly where she stood with prison officials.

Realizing that she had contracted Covid-19, she informed a guard and said she thought she should be isolated. The guard’s response was simple and direct: “Winner,” he said, “nobody gives a shit about you.”  That’s the reality of the American prison system.

The case of Brandon Clay Dodson is even worse.

Dodson was arrested on a burglary charge and was being held in the local jail in Clayton, Alabama.  He told a guard that several other prisoners had been beating him, and he asked to be moved into segregated housing for his own protection. 

He later told the guards in solitary that he wasn’t feeling well, but they ignored him.  And a day after that, the 43-year-old was found dead in his bed.  

Prison officials sent Dodson’s body to the Barbour County, Alabama, coroner, who later sent it to the University of Alabama Medical Center.  It was finally returned to his family, severely decomposed, three weeks later. 

And as if that weren’t bad enough, Brandon Dodson’s heart was missing. 

The family has filed a federal lawsuit against the jail, the coroner and the University of Alabama Medical Center, but nobody seems to know what happened to the errant organ.  My guess is that they’ll never find it.  The bottom line is, as Reality Winner was told, nobody gives a shit.

It’s probably too much to expect things to turn around. But just a few months ago in a 104-page ruling, a federal judge in Louisiana ruled against the administrators of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.  

The ruling highlighted just a few of the untold number of medical horrors that prisoners suffer all the time there, including “a man denied medical attention four times during a stroke, leaving him blind and paralyzed; a man denied access to a specialist for four years while his throat cancer advanced; even a blind man denied a cane for 16 years.”  

The judge appointed three special masters to develop, implement, and monitor plans to improve health care at the facility, and he gave the prison 30 days after that to turn things around. 

Don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, on the federal level, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) tasked the Justice Department’s Bureau of Prisons with fixing what they called “a medical system that has allowed people in its care to die preventable deaths.”  

This came after NPR reported that, just at the federal level, 4,950 prisoners had died of preventable illnesses while in custody in the past 10 years. 

In a statement, Durbin said, “It is deeply upsetting that families are mourning the loss of their loved ones because they were not afforded the proper medical care they deserved while incarcerated.” 

Grassley added, “I’m deeply alarmed by reports that the Bureau of Prisons has demonstrated foot dragging when it comes to providing medical care to those in its custody.  The BOP needs to be held responsible for this failure and take action to raise its standards.”

Durbin and Grassley are right, of course.  But a press statement isn’t going to change anything.  The problem is prevalent at every level of government and is exacerbated by a national penchant for prioritizing the privatization of jails and prisons.  

What better way to make a profit than to cut medical care?  In the meantime, prisoners across the country have to try to fend for themselves.  And when disaster strikes, they have to hope that somebody gives a shit.

John Kiriakou is a former C.I.A. counterterrorism officer and a former senior investigator with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. John became the sixth whistleblower indicted by the Obama administration under the Espionage Act—a law designed to punish spies. He served 23 months in prison as a result of his attempts to oppose the Bush administration’s torture program.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

9 comments for “JOHN KIRIAKOU: Dying by Callous Disregard

  1. Rafi Simonton
    February 8, 2024 at 16:52


    Virulent racism and classism are factors of course. But current horrors like lack of health care, fees charged to prisoners, exorbitant phone rates, etc. are the result of private equity firms moving into prison “management.” Like everything else private equity vultures take over (check what they did to Toys R Us, Hertz, ManorCare nursing homes, and for profit education) they cut employment, seek the cheapest supplies, and siphon off all short term profits as well as selling off or grabbing for themselves whatever assets their target company has. They tear the flesh off of whatever organization they’re involved with and leave a bankrupt carcass.
    The book //Plunder: Private Equity’s Plan to Pillage America// by Brendan Ballou in chapter 7 is specifically about what’s happening in prisons. It’s titled “Captive Audience: Private Equity in Prisons.” It’s revolting.

  2. February 7, 2024 at 08:59

    Thank You John

  3. Jeff Harrison
    February 6, 2024 at 21:22

    “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
    – Fyodor Dostoevsky

    Clearly, the US doesn’t have much of a civilization and that is why we fail.

  4. Ray Peterson
    February 6, 2024 at 19:10

    John, considering the UK courts shameful injustice as routine
    in the case of Julian Assange, any chance of your highly
    ethical journalism contributing as evidence that if Julian
    is extradited his life is severely endangered?
    Just hoping

    • John Kiriakou
      February 7, 2024 at 12:58

      Hi, Ray. I’ve been working closely with Julian’s attorneys both in the UK and the US for several years now. I have no idea if it will make a difference to the judges, but I’m hoping for the best. The issue seems crystal clear to me.

      • Ray Peterson
        February 7, 2024 at 15:39

        You are a ray of hope (NPI).
        Law being one thing, justice another.

  5. Sharon Aldrich
    February 6, 2024 at 15:45

    So much needless and horrible suffering! And a government that cares so little. It is perfectly apparent that most politicians care nothing for the voters. How much less such disregard for prisoners, who are also citizens. Thank you, John for bringing these horrifying stories and conditions in our prisons into the light of day!

  6. Tobin Sterritt
    February 6, 2024 at 12:57

    John; First, I’m relieved to see that you’ve come through your health crisis and are with us still. I wish you a speedy and complete recovery. The world is that much better for you being in it.

    Second; Would that we were operating in a society where that lethal degree apathyand contempt for other people could not survive the light of day. I know there’s no guarantees but I still believe people who give a s*** and are willing to pursue the truth at all costs may be what keeps us from getting lost in darkness completely. Thanks for what you do.

    • Theresa Barzee
      February 6, 2024 at 20:31

      My gosh, John, please keep up your fine writing as well as your health. Maybe Bayer needs suing? Son-in-law came out of collapsed lung horror with stomach of bleeding ulcers from same. Doctors told him to take it! Jeezus wept.
      We’ve already lost John Pilger this year. We do not want to lose you before your time. Hang in there. Assange, and all his supporters need you. We all do. Be well, dear fellow. Write on. These stories help us immensely.

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