MONROE — A knee injury can be a career ender for many athletes.
Harold Lang Jr., a former prisoner at the Monroe Correctional Complex’s Twin Rivers Unit, said his torn ACL and meniscus became a life sentence.
For that, he blames the medical care he received behind bars, according to a lawsuit recently filed in U.S. District Court in Seattle. Lang is out of prison now and trying to stay straight, but his employment opportunities are limited by his injury, he says.
In a response to Lang’s lawsuit, the state Department of Corrections agreed that he was injured but denied his allegation that his care was inadequate.
Lang injured his knee on Nov. 19, 2019, during the semifinals of the prison basketball tournament. The new concrete floor in the gym was unforgiving, he said, and sometimes people treated the sport like a UFC bout.
Still, his team was up by “literally 50 points.” Even then, he wasn’t about to let the opposing team score.
Lang saw the chance for a rebound.
He rose up.
“When I came down, my knee just gave out,” he said.
Lang’s team prevailed, but he watched from the sidelines as his team from Unit B lost the championship — a game they would have won, he assured, if he was healthy.
“I’ll give you one or two people, max, that will say they were better than me, or as good as me,” the Spanaway Lake High School grad said. “I say none.”
Lang, 31, said he stayed on the sidelines as he tried to navigate the prison health care system. He wasn’t prepared for what he described as a revolving door of doctors, a constant runaround, paperwork and the general limitations of what providers were willing to do for him.
As he waited, Lang said, he injured his knee twice more due to what he calls neglect from medical providers at the prison.
More than half a year passed before he got an MRI confirming the extent of his injury and, finally, his first surgery. He was diagnosed with a torn ACL and two significant meniscus tears.
In the lawsuit, filed in June, Lang alleges he was given bad medical advice, didn’t receive adequate rehabilitation care and was repeatedly refused an MRI and a consultation for surgery. He claims the state caused him “to suffer great pain and deprivation of his civil, statutory and constitutional rights.”
The lawsuit does not list an amount of damages requested. In a tort claim he submitted earlier to the Department of Corrections, which was rejected, he demanded $2 million.
His attorney, Darryl Parker, of Seattle-based Civil Rights Justice Center, said Lang’s story is a common one in Washington’s prisons.
“I think the DOC assumes responsibility for the inmate once the inmate gets in prison, but that includes medical care, and I don’t think DOC really wants that responsibility,” he said. “But they don’t have a choice. They have to take care of the inmate.”
Parker is representing several other prisoners in lawsuits outlining health care concerns at the Twin Rivers Unit. They include another man who hurt himself in a basketball game, fracturing his ankle; a cook who exacerbated his spinal injury while making meals, losing feeling in his arm and fingers; someone who was experiencing mental health issues; and an inmate who lost vision in his left eye.
A Department of Corrections spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation.
Lang’s lawsuit suggests indifference at every turn.
The day after the tournament, he visited the doctor and learned he likely had torn his ACL. An X-ray was requested, but not an MRI. It’s more expensive, but it could have clarified how badly he was hurt and what type of treatment he needed.
Medical providers gave him crutches, Tylenol and an elastic bandage, according to medical files shared by Lang’s attorneys with his permission. He also was prescribed basic rest, ice, compression and elevation. And a doctor was consulted for an MRI.
“Of course I was denied,” Lang wrote on a copy of the document.
Getting an MRI and an orthopedic surgery consult were deemed “not medically necessary” by the Care Review Committee, according to documents.
Not medically necessary, according to the Department of Corrections Health Plan, means treatment only speeds recovery of minor conditions, gives little improvement in quality of life, offers minimal relief of symptoms or is exclusively for the convenience of the individual.
Parker, the plaintiff’s attorney, said the message was clear: The tear would have to heal on its own.
Once, Lang claimed, one of the medical providers suggested that if he wanted an MRI or surgery, he could pay out of pocket.
“That definitely was not an option for me,” he said.
Every day, Lang scaled the stairs to get to his cell in the top tier. At times, he used the railings to pull himself up the stairs to get to his unit. At his worst, he would have to sit on a step, use his hands to push him up to the next, and repeat that until he got to the top.
It was embarrassing, he said, to have everyone around him see him struggle, yet do nothing.
Lang said he asked again and again to move from his cell on the top tier to the bottom, so he wouldn’t have to take the stairs.
Nobody ever fulfilled his request, he said. A response to his grievance notes he was required to be in a lower bunk, but it doesn’t address why he wasn’t moved down a floor.
Lang could barely sleep. Every slight movement of his leg brought with it agony, he said. Tylenol was of little help. The only time he got decent sleep was when he was prescribed, briefly, some stronger painkillers, he said.
Visits with a physical therapist were offered, but much too infrequently, Lang claimed. Usually he would do a session, get a piece of paper with exercises to do on his own, and then he wouldn’t see the physical therapist for several weeks, according to the lawsuit.
His word against theirs
After the basketball tournament, Lang said he injured himself two more times.
In December 2019, he was in the gym doing some rehabilitation exercises he was assigned when he felt his knee blow up, according to the lawsuit.
The third time he hurt himself, in January 2020, Lang was walking down the stairs when his knee buckled.
For that injury, he was rushed to the emergency room at EvergreenHealth, the first time he went to an outside provider. He was told he should get an MRI and consult a doctor for a surgery.
Back at the prison, he wasn’t approved for an MRI or a surgery consultation for several more months. Notes in medical reports suggest providers discussed those possibilities with a specialist, but again, Lang said, nothing happened.
He was given a wheelchair, which Lang now believes was a mistake. As he used the wheelchair over the next few months, he said, the muscles around his injury became weaker, making him ill-prepared for surgery.
And finally, after two months of going up and down the stairs, he was moved to the bottom floor. According to Lang, a concerned corrections sergeant saw him roll up in the wheelchair and decided it was time to do something about the living arrangement, according to Lang. He said the sergeant went on his behalf to figure out the process of moving units.
Throughout his treatment, Lang tried to protest through the grievance process, but he felt no one was taking him seriously. Court papers say he filed at least 18 grievances.
It was his word — a man convicted of robbery — against the word of a professional medical team.
“Their word was golden, and that was it,” he said.
One response, sent on April 21, 2020, noted Lang was seen on a regular basis and provided treatment.
“There is no evidence of negligence,” the response said. “You were treated and referred for care in line with the DOC Health Plan.”
Furthermore, the response noted, the denials of the MRI and surgery were not “grievable.” There was a separate appeal process for those decisions. Lang said he appealed, and that also went nowhere.
Many grievances garnered little attention. The reply often was boilerplate, essentially saying: You’ve already grieved this issue, we’ve already replied, and you can only submit one grievance per issue.
“Please continue to work with the (Monroe Correctional Complex Health Services) staff for your care needs,” another response says.
In May 2020, Lang finally received an orthopedic consult with an outside provider and received an MRI, confirming the tear of the ACL and meniscus.
On June 25, he underwent surgery. Most of his meniscus, too badly damaged to be repaired, was removed.
“This injury will cause Mr. Lang to have lasting effects for the rest of his life, including arthritis and a risk of re-injury,” the lawsuit claims.
The doctor told him that they couldn’t do the second surgery, for the ACL tear, until Lang went through physical therapy at least twice a week. He got that surgery months later, in October.
Life after prison
According to court documents, Lang was 22 when he set up a deal over Craigslist to buy an iPhone 5 at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma. Lang snatched the phone from the person and ran. Then another man Lang was with threatened the victim, saying, “Do you want to get shot? Keep running.”
A jury convicted him of first-degree robbery.
Lang had also been convicted of felony harassment, among other crimes.
Lang said he regrets the pain he caused people back then.
He spent nine years in prison.
In March, he was released at age 31. Still young, he said.
Going back to society can be a lot for any prisoner after spending so many years away.
Trying to find health care on top of that, for Lang, was “overwhelming.” He had trouble finding a specialist who would take his insurance.
“I’m like, what am I supposed to do? I had surgery, I need therapy,” he said, recalling his frustration.
After being rejected, he said, he connected with a friend who was trying to start a physical therapy business. They helped each other.
Describing it as a “lifelong injury,” Lang said he’s still recovering. Too much activity and a pain will shoot through his leg.
“It tells me when not to do things,” he said. “Immediately.”
Lang still can’t play sports, something he had done since he was young for fun, exercise and stress relief. And he can’t get the kind of manual labor jobs that would accept someone with his background — the kind he intended to get to build a successful life beyond bars.
“I was going to get out and work, and work, work, work, and try to build a life and focus on never coming back here,” he said. “Now, it’s not that at all.”
Instead, he has to work somewhere that won’t put too much stress on his leg. For him, those jobs are few and far between. He got a gig at a hotel for a bit, but that didn’t work out, he said.
He’s afraid of becoming homeless, of becoming desperate for money, of falling back into prison.
Lang believes if his knee had been properly addressed from the start, he wouldn’t be struggling as much as he is now.
“I just never had a choice in this situation,” he said. “I never got to choose if I wanted surgery or not. I never got to choose anything.”