Amid all the talk recently (has it been forever?) about health-care reform and the groups who should be covered—and who shouldn’t—I haven’t heard much discussion about health-care plans for prisoners.
That’s because folks on Capitol Hill are hesitant to talk about prison and prisoners unless they’re running for office and promoting get-tough-on-crime policies or, on the state level, being forced to cut burgeoning corrections budgets to keep from going broke.
But they should talk about it, because the 2.3 million Americans currently locked up in correctional facilities across the country suffer a much higher rate of serious and chronic illness than the general population does—from AIDS to drug addictions to a recent outbreak of a flesh-eating bacteria reported in the Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison, in Illinois.
Perhaps lawmakers have forgotten that the Eighth Amendment mandates that inmates have access to the same level of health care available to residents in a community. Forgotten, too, that because prisoners are in our custody, they are our responsibility and that makes them part of the discussion on health-care reform. A recent article in the Washington Post described the collateral cost of ignoring health care for one segment of the U.S. prison population—the mentally ill, who make up one-half of those incarcerated. Unable to access treatment in their communities, many mentally ill individuals get into trouble with the law, get arrested and go to prison, where they are often targets of abuse and where they certainly don’t receive any treatment for their illness.
And so when they eventually get released, the cycle of crime, arrest, incarceration starts all over again. A cycle that costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars annually.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Andrew P. Wilper, M.D., a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who has studied how U.S. prisons administer health care to inmates, has argued that devoting more resources to community-based mental and substance-abuse health-care centers could, by helping to keep these individuals in their right mind, reduce crime and incarceration rates.
So, by providing decent medical care, we could lower prison populations, decrease crime and improve the health of hundreds of thousands of incarcerated Americans. Sounds like a good idea, even if it weren’t already the law.