Inmate’s Hernia Dilemma Comes to Attention of State Legislative Panel

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The director of the Department of Corrections recently told a state panel he would report back to them on the medical condition of an inmate after photos of the man were circulated showing he had what appeared to be hernias the size of a softball protruding from his stomach.

Ronney Harriman, an inmate at Montana State Prison incarcerated for a spate of driving under the influence and other convictions, told Montana Watchdog in a telephone interview earlier this month that he was glad to hear the news.

“You have no idea how good it makes me feel,” he said.

Harriman came to the attention of the state Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee on Dec. 15, prompting DOC Director Mike Ferriter to tell the panel he would check on Harriman and the committee chairman Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, said he wanted to meet next month with the man.

Ferriter said he could not imagine doctors not giving medical treatment to a person with that level of need. Earlier in the day he told the board members that the DOC spent $12 million on medical costs last year and complimented the doctors who looked after the inmates.

His comments were echoed by Linda Moodry, the prison’s public information officer.

“We take all of our medical care of inmates seriously,” she said. “Our inmates receive excellent care.”

Federal privacy laws prevented her from discussing Harriman’s condition, but she was aware of him.

The 50-year-old Harriman recently wrote to Dr. Elizabeth Rantz, medical director of MSP and the “Board of Medical Directors,” asking for help.

“The (two) hernias I have are slowly killing me, I am in constant pain and I am stressed constantly,” he told officials in the Nov. 13 letter.

The state had operated on his hernias in 2007, but problems persist, he said. Harriman said mesh was inserted into his stomach in the 2007 operation and he can now feel the mesh floating around inside.

According to the DOC website, Harriman is in prison for driving under the influence, criminal endangerment and for being a persistent felony offender. He was sentenced Feb. 15, 2007 in Flathead County. He said has spent time at prison facilities in Deer Lodge, Shelby and Glendive.

Harriman, who said he was sentenced to 40 years with 25 of those years suspended, admits to a troubled past and notes that he got three DUIs within five years.

“I got in a wreck and could have killed four people,” the former Kalispell resident said. “I pray every day that I didn’t kill four people.”

But he says he has been sober for about six years “due to circumstances.”

And he said MSP officials will likely say they see him as combative and manipulative and says he struck a doctor shortly after the state operated on his hernias in 2007.

“The doctor squeezed my belly and I slapped him with the back of my hand as a reflex,” he said.

In November 2008, Great Falls attorney Patrick Flaherty, who said he was hired by Harriman’s father, wrote to then-Warden Mike Mahoney seeking help.

On Feb. 5, 2009, Flaherty once again writes the state saying he had not heard from them and that “Harriman has a possible life-threatening condition that needs immediate medical treatment.

“I would sure like to hear from you good folks as to what you are doing with this very serious medical condition,” Flaherty wrote. “If I can’t get an answer within the next ten days, I will be constrained to file suit asking for damages and asking for the furnishing of proper medical care.”

Flaherty said his wife, who often criticizes him for some of the clients he represents, was so upset over photos of Harriman that she went out to find a private practice physician to offer another opinion.

In a Nov. 19, 2008, letter to Flaherty, Dr. David Rohrer does say repeat “surgeries for hernia repairs do have high risk for complications including bleeding, infection, recurrence of hernias and chronic pain.

“I would not expect that his pain issues would necessarily resolve with another repair,” Rohrer wrote. “He should take that into consideration as well but should not necessarily prevent him from having another repair.”

Flaherty said it finally came down to a battle between doctors with the state saying he did not need surgery.

They then went to court and lost their case in Montana 3rd Judicial District Court in Powell County in 2009.

Flaherty said the state told him they were monitoring his condition and surgery was not necessary.

“I couldn’t get anywhere,” Flaherty told Montana Watchdog. “I feel sorry for him.”

“I couldn’t get him out.”

Harriman said his medical problems began in 2006 when he was working construction. He was hit below the navel with a pickaxe and blood vessels were severed. He said he stomach grew 10 times its normal size and he had to get emergency surgery. Once incarcerated he said he noticed a pencil-tipped bubble about the size of a pinky finger protruding from his stomach.

He said the state tried to fix the problem but it never held. Harriman said he now wears a “binder,” which he described as being like a corset, 85 percent of the time. And he said he knows some people will not be sympathetic toward him since he is an inmate.

“I don’t deserve it,” he told Montana Watchdog. “I think they are calling me a manipulator. I never wanted to sue anybody.

“I am not in it for the money,” he said. “I’m in prison.”

“Would you let your son, your uncle or anybody walk around like this? Oh Hell no,” he said.

He said his ailment embarrasses him when dealing with other inmates.

“Do you want to know how many times in the past six years I have had to explain this people?” he asked. And he say he dispenses his own advice to prisoners seeking medical attention: “I tell them to get down to the infirmary and bug ‘em, bug ‘em, bug ‘em and fix it or you will look like me.”

Harriman said he will be up for parole on Sept. 29. He said he hopes to be paroled back to California and will get it fixed himself if it is not fixed in prison.

The matter was brought to the Law and Justice Committee’s attention by Helena businessman Rudy Stock, whose son is serving at Crossroads Correctional Center in Shelby, where Harriman was once incarcerated and by Casey Rudd, a Bozeman-based advocate for inmates who runs a nonprofit organization called Connections. It was Rudd who provided the photos of Harriman.

Rudd said she received a letter from Harriman in 2010 begging her for help. She said she is optimistic that Harriman will get help but was saddened to hear correction officials question if care was needed.

“I don’t care how it ends up,” she said, “just so Ronney gets the help that he needs.”