Prison changes policies after newspaper's investigation into Minnesota inmate's death

The Minnesota Department of Corrections implemented policies to increase access to language translator services after the Post Bulletin reported a Spanish-speaking inmate died in his cell without having translation services during medical check-ins before his death.

Victor Artola funeral
A screenshot from a Facebook Live video of Victor Artola’s funeral in El Salvador. Balmore Artola, his nephew, stands over the casket. (Courtesy of Balmore Artola)

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Corrections has implemented a wave of policy changes to improve access to language translation services, following an investigation by the Rochester Post Bulletin into the death of a Faribault prison inmate who did not have access to a translator during his final medical check-ins.

The changes come nearly six months after Victor Artola, 64, died in his cell. He was never brought to a hospital, despite being diagnosed with COVID-19 and vomiting food and water for 72 hours.

Medical staff recorded that Victor "stated he felt fine," just hours before he died, but did so without a translator present — even while noting there was a language barrier for the Spanish-speaker.

March 12 medical check-in 1.PNG
The medical professional taking Victor Artola’s vitals on 3/12/21 recorded his oxygen saturation to be at 99%, temperature at 97.7 degrees, and blood pressure at 116/60. All of these readings were considered normal for a man of his age and condition. (Courtesy of Minnesota Department of Corrections)


"There is a federal right for language access in health care settings. This was clearly not done. This is a terrible medical ethics violation, as critical information from the patient was knowingly left out of the assessment," said Dr. Susan Hasti, a faculty member of the Hennepin Healthcare Family Medicine residency program.

Paul Harris, Artola's 22-year-old cellmate, implored staff to help Artola in the days leading up to his death.

“I’m constantly begging them to take him to the hospital,” said Harris. “(Victor) just kept holding his stomach. … He told the (correctional officers) 'Me no good. I'm not good. Am I going to be taken to the hospital?’ And they kept saying there was nothing we could do."

The Minnesota Department of Corrections policy changes will affect intake procedures for incarcerated individuals, staff training, as well as policies regarding signage in the facilities themselves.

As an incarcerated person enters an institution, they will now be assessed for their language competency and need for interpretative services, according to Minnesota Department of Corrections spokesman Nicholas Kimball. These results will then be noted in their medical records and entered into a central database accessible to corrections employees from different departments.

Additionally, corrections officials will identify the spaces in which translator access will be needed and ensure that language line instructions or interpretive services resources are posted, said Kimball.



Finally, as interpretive services are essential during medical check ins — and a federal right — nursing service employees will be educated on these updated policies when they are hired, and annually thereafter. All medical interactions with individuals who have limited English ability must be noted in records.
"This is somebody's dad, friend, child, and that's the reality of it,” said Commissioner Paul Schnell in a June interview. “As a system, we have an obligation to make sure that if things did not go as they should have gone clinically, and even beyond clinically, then we have an obligation to address that and to fix that.”

Artola’s family and friends were worried about how his language competency could affect his care in prison. His son, Jose Artola, also is incarcerated at Faribault prison. He said he wished he could have advocated on his father’s behalf, but he was forbidden from seeing him as he fell ill, and even after he died.

“All I wanted to do was just to say hi to him. Tell him that we're in this together. You're not by yourself,” Jose said.

David Basinger, another inmate at Faribault, tutored Victor in English for years. He remembered Victor as someone who was always eager to learn and didn’t take shortcuts, whether tackling the basics of math or English.

“You saw him full of life and then (saw) it slowly leave him,” Basinger said. “We all did what we did to put ourselves in here. And for the most part, a lot of us are trying to better ourselves and become better people in order to go back to society. And having something like that happen, especially when someone was asking for help repeatedly, it just doesn't make any sense to me."

Nora Eckert has previously worked with NPR, The Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland and undergraduate degree from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis. She’s reported on national investigations into jail suicides, how climate change disproportionately affects the urban poor, the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes and the race for artificial blood. She joined the Post Bulletin team in January 2021 as their investigative reporter.
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