At the beginning of August there was an Alliance for Healthcare forum on Health Care Behind Bars. One of the panelists was Debra Rowe of Returning Citizens United. This isn’t the first time I have heard Debra talk about this. I was lucky enough to be on the Criminal Injustice Committee with her. I’m not sure that the full impact of what she is saying comes through in such a formal talk. So I’ll share what I remember from the talks I heard.
When Debra was incarcerated in the 80s, her and the other women found themselves providing hospice care for people dying of AIDS. There was virtually no health care and they had to fight to get even minimal attention paid to the inmates who were sick. But that’s not all. Prisoners were being tested for HIV. Reports were coming out about HIV infections in prison. But they weren’t telling the prisoners they were sick. The people only found out when they started becoming symptomatic.
Not much has changed. Despite prisoners being blood tested upon entering prisons, they are not being told what the results are. Debra recounts an instance where a man was tested several times by several different prisons and never once told that he had Hepatitis C. The rates of Hepatitis and other infectious diseases are incredibly high in prison. One study estimates that 17.4% of those in prison have Hep C. If they are left untreated, those people could die.
People who know they have a health issue struggle to get any kind of care in prison. One woman who wrote in for the mother’s day issue of Tenacious: Art and Writings by Women in Prison explains:
Betty, one of our Golden Girls, fell on the uneven pavement on Sunday morning, Sept. 8th, while walking back from an Art Therapy class with interns from the Gerontology Department at USC. Luckily she had put in a co-pay the day before, and so would likely be seen in the next day or so. A copay is a prison system alert that some kind of care is needed; it is called a co-pay because the system charges an inmate $5 for every visit. Cheap by free world standards, but enormously expensive for inmates as this reflects about 33% of their monthly average salary at an 8 cents an hour job…
despite many health care visits, the foot is still broken, still untreated, now nineteen days since the fall, but the system will assure you that she is being seen and taken care of.
Suffering with a broken foot for 19 days and having paid for the privilege. That’s the prison health care system.
Though prisons have not figured out how to do even minimal care, they have figured out how to make millions of dollars. At least 20 states have outsourced all or part of their prison health care to private for-profit organizations like Corizon, about whom you can read a damning list of abuses and scandals around the country in this piece on Prison Legal News.
Another corporation getting into the prison medical business is Centene. Centene had 2013 service revenue of $ 10,526,040. Not all of that was for prison health care. In fact, much of it was saving governments money on medicare spending. In other words, they make most of their money off of “the families of low-income single mothers.” You can read all about their famous cost cutting and army of lobbyists here.
It isn’t surprising that they are so good at getting government contracts considering how well-connected they are. The board includes Former Majority Leader Dick Gephardt and former Governor of Wisconsin Tommy G. Thompson. Of course, there are plenty of banks, insurance companies, and the obligatory Microsoft guy on the board as well.
One other thought about the health care forum I linked to above. For a minute I thought that nobody was going to bring up racism or poverty. That it would just hover there unspoken. Luckily, another Criminal Injustice person, popped up during the question and answer session and made sure nobody forgot. Christopher Glenn also brought up the 500 mile rule for DC inmates, which is something I should write about soon.