Side Effects

Whenever someone handed Pharmacist Bob a prescription for thirty pills, he filled the order for thirty pills.

"Not 29. Not 31," he says. "Thirty. That's how I see the world."

So when he started seeing nurses fudging the rules at the Colorado prison where he worked, Bob Gusich didn't like it. In fact, he voiced his objections to the management. And then, suddenly, he was fired.

In his 32-month tenure as the lone pharmacist for the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, or DRDC, Gusich says he complained about pills being given to prisoners they weren't intended for. He protested the haphazard storage of narcotics and opposed the department's hiring of a recovering substance abuser to help him fill prescriptions. During a stint at a different Colorado Department of Corrections pharmacy in Cañon City, Gusich was appalled to find an unsupervised inmate cleaning the well-stocked pharmacy, expired drugs on the shelves, and razor blades and sharp scissors left within prisoners' reach.

He also saw a lot of money going down the drain.

A 1996 look at the DOC's inmate health-care system by the state auditor's office revealed that while Colorado spent about $25 million on inmate medical services that year, it had no idea exactly how inmates use -- or abuse -- the system. "Colorado inmates, on average, use health-care services about five times as often as the general public," the auditor's report concluded. Yet the DOC had no records about when and why inmates seek treatment and had not analyzed the appropriateness and necessity of its 285 clinical staff positions. The state's aging and burgeoning male prison population and the growing number of incarcerated females, who tend to have more expensive medical needs than males, could make inmate health-care costs rise even higher in coming years.

Which is why Gusich didn't mind raising a stink about how nurses were letting hemophiliac drugs that cost hundreds of dollars a bottle expire on the shelves; or about doctors who were writing huge prescriptions for painkillers to inmates who'd strained themselves while weightlifting or playing testosterone-soaked basketball games during prison rec time. The reforms he suggested, Gusich insists, could save the DOC more than half a million dollars a year. If someone would listen.

Fired in July 1997, Gusich later sued the Department of Corrections under the state's whistleblower protection statute. His lengthy hearing ended last month, and administrative law judge Mary McClatchey is expected to make a ruling soon. Now the guy nicknamed "Pharmacist Bob" by his co-workers wants his old job back. He wants his back pay. And, he says, he wants the Colorado Department of Corrections to stop breaking the law.

Set just east of the Denver County Jail and ringed by spirals of barbed wire, the DRDC is the first stop on an inmate's journey into the state prison system. Each morning, buses and vans from county jails across Colorado pull up to the intake dock and unload their human cargo: men or women dressed in street clothes, red prison jumpsuits, or even the old black-and-white-striped convict's suits. Some of the men arrive wearing county-issued white socks and girlish red plastic sandals on their feet.

They are killers, car thieves, child abusers, corporate embezzlers -- all convicted criminals with varied backgrounds and shady pasts. Some of the inmates are passing into DOC custody for only a few months. Others will not leave until they die.

Over the next nine days, the newcomers will have their teeth examined, their education levels measured and their IQs tested. (Certain intake days are reserved for females and youth offenders.) A bevy of "programmers" -- trained to weigh an inmate's criminal and mental history, the severity of his offense and the length of his conviction -- will decide where in Colorado he will do his time. "This is probably the closest look we take at them," says DOC spokeswoman Liz McDonough.

With its multi-colored brick exterior, the DRDC is considered a DOC showcase. The thick courtyard lawn and lush flower beds are tended by women from the Denver Women's Correctional Facility (DWCF), located just south of the complex. Inside, the DRDC is immaculate: The concrete floors gleam; the hallways smell of floor wax; soothing pastel paints cover the spartan interior walls. But the cells are harsh: Each bed is a hard slab covered with a thin plastic mattress. Life here is on 23-hour lockdown.

"We treat everybody as a maximum-security inmate," says Michael Evans, administrative services manager of the 480-bed DRDC, "because we don't know who they are."

Every morning, up to 35 new inmates trudge into the medical clinic at the DRDC, where they wait in one of three holding cells until they're called for a workup: a tuberculosis test, hearing and eye checks, a physical and a dental exam -- at the cost of $206.14 per person. Once the daily intake checkups are finished, the clinic also sees sick inmates from other area prisons. The inmates must make either a 50-cent copayment to see a nurse or physician's assistant or $3 to see a doctor.