U.S. Massachusetts Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy coined the infamous words, “health care is a right, not a privilege.” This truth holds true for the non-incarcerated. Yet, for those imprisoned, this may not always be the case.
Within the U.S., according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), in 2016, there were a total of 2.2 million adults and incarcerated in both federal and state prisons. As reported by the Prison Policy Initiative, the breakdown is as follows: state prisons — 1.33 million; federal prisons — 1.97 million; local jails — 630,000 juveniles — 34,000; territorial prisons — 13,000; and immigration detention centers — 41,000.
The American Journal of Public Health in their 2009 article reported that the prison population has high rates of chronic medical conditions. With a population that is ever growing in addition to being chronically ill, what, if any, medical services are provided for this subpopulation? Are they eligible for coverage through the Affordable Care Act? According to Healthcare.gov, the incarcerated are ineligible to purchase private health insurance through the Marketplace. However, post-release, they immediately qualify for coverage. So then, what is available to this population? Surprisingly, outside medical care for inmates is permissible in some states wherein correctional facilities will allow doctors to visit their patients when medical attention is warranted.
For day-to-day-interaction, sick prisoners have the option to let the on-duty guard know they are not feeling well. The next step is to place the prisoners’ name on the list to see the in-house physician. The time frame for appointments can be as early as the next day. However, for emergencies, there is usually a nurse on-staff around the clock 24 hours. For those cases where inmates need acute medical care, they are transported to the nearest hospital where they are treated.
There is in some cases, a cost associated with treatment. Co-pays for inmates are affordable at a usual rate of $5. This fee is taken from his or her wage earnings from work within the prison. Again, this amount varies by state and if costs are above that $ co-pay, the state will cover the remaining balance.
Although medical care is minimal, the quality is contingent upon each facility. Even when sick, prisoners are required to remain in shackles while being attended to by medical personnel. In some states, women are chained while giving birth; resulting in exposing women to inhumane and unreasonable risks which leads to endangering the life of both mother and child. On a federal level, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement restrict pregnant women from being chained.
While prisoners in this country are not denied mental and medical care, they are not provided with the access to the best services available. This is violation of their Constitutional Right that their medical needs be treated adequately. Violation of the rights of inmates may result in sicker prisoners behind bars who will one day return to communities with poorer health outcomes.