updated 10/15/2008 7:54:40 PM ET 2008-10-15T23:54:40

Death row inmates at the federal prison in Terre Haute are routinely denied access to medical, dental and mental health care, the American Civil Liberties Union said Wednesday in a letter to a governmental official.

A yearlong investigation by the ACLU's National Prison Project uncovered "grossly inadequate" conditions that "fail to meet constitutional standards and jeopardize the health and safety" of the more than 50 inmates awaiting execution at the prison, the organization said in a letter to Harley Lappin, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

One diabetic prisoner showing symptoms of high blood sugar had to wait two hours to be treated with insulin, the ACLU said. Some prisoners with dental problems chose simply to have all their teeth removed rather than suffer pain while waiting for complicated procedures, it said.

"The Constitution prohibits deliberate indifference to the serious medical needs of prisoners, including those sentenced to die," ACLU attorney Gabriel B. Eber said in a news release. He called on officials to "do whatever is necessary" to correct the problems.

Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Felicia Ponce said she could not comment because she was not sure whether Lappin had seen the letter.

Eber said his investigation included interviews with prisoners and a review of hundreds of pages of prison records.

According to the letter, prison officials do not promptly respond to medical emergencies, provide "woefully deficient" access to acute health care and consistently ignore signs of possibly serious medical conditions. It cited one instance of an inmate, who was not identified, pressing an emergency call button in his cell for 45 minutes before receiving attention for a heart problem.

It took three hours for a doctor to arrive and for the prisoner to be taken to the prison hospital, and another five days before the prisoner received his first dose of medication prescribed by a cardiologist.

"The failure of prison officials to adequately respond to the medical emergencies of prisoners, and to ensure proper access to critical medications, is inexplicable and could well result in prisoner deaths," Eber said.

One inmate who was denied mental health treatment asked for immediate execution, the letter said. It also said inmates are subjected to intense noise that results in sleep deprivation and "significant psychological distress."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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