Do Prisoners Deserve Free Medical Treatment?

By Diane Dimond

September 1, 2011 6 min read

They are charged with breaking laws or victimizing fellow citizens. We respond by making sure they get a lawyer — often on the taxpayer's dime. If they plead "not guilty," we stage expensive trials so they can provide evidence to a judge or jury. If convicted, they are imprisoned.

So, after all that we do, we also have an obligation to provide prisoners with any and all medicines they might need to keep them healthy?

While so many Americans are struggling to meet health insurance and prescription costs, services for prisoners constantly increase. And make no mistake about it: America has so many incarcerated people that we're spending boatloads of money on convicts' medical care. Their services cannot be cut. But health care programs for the general public have been cut back time and time again.

Let's take the state of Ohio as a general example of what it means to maintain the health of convicts. The Ohio prison system has about 51,000 prisoners, and it spends nearly $223 million a year for their medical care. About $28 million of the Ohio total is spent on inmates' prescriptions.

In Oregon, the latest annual figures show that it took $100 million to take care of some 14,000 prisoners. That's seven times more than the state spends on education.

Texas, like every other state, has seen a spike in the number of elderly inmates who often require even more expensive medical treatments. That phenomenon — on top of Texas' regular medical care costs for prisoners — caused expenses to balloon to a staggering $545 million dollars last fiscal year. This, at a time when other crucial state programs are facing mandatory budget cuts.

Every year, the price of tending to old and dying prisoners skyrockets. Realize these inmates must often be transported to hospitals or nursing homes, where they are treated with the latest lifesaving methods and, yes, even though they are incapacitated from their illnesses, the law says they must be provided with security guards around the clock.

Wrap your head around this set of facts, if you can: In California, a state drowning in red ink, the prison system recently identified 21 inmates whose annual health care bill is just under $2 million — each. There are another 1,300 guests of the California penal system who require medical attention amounting to $100,000 apiece.

In the face of those cold, hard facts, California adopted a bill last year granting medical paroles so the sickest inmates could get out of prison and into federally funded health care facilities. That, of course, only shifted the burden on paper — from the state to the federal level.

So, armed with these staggering statistics, ask yourself: Do prisoners deserve all this free health care, when so many of us struggle to pay for health insurance or, sadly, go without? The answer in a humane society is yes.

But yes to a point.

Are you sitting down? If not, please do. In Massachusetts, a cross-dressing inmate who murdered his wife in 1990 has been suing the state for health care costs related to his desire to have a sex-change operation. Robert Kosilek (who has changed his name to Michelle) has already received hormone injections, electrolysis hair removal and, most recently, a mammogram — all at taxpayer expense. Kosilek remains housed in an all-male prison, and her standard issue prison wardrobe has been augmented with several bras and "some make-up," according to corrections officials.

Still, after a costly 10-year court battle, Kosilek says these steps have not been enough to ease her depression, and the fight continues for the state to pay for a full-on gender reassignment surgery. The case is still pending in Massachusetts' U.S. District Court.

Earlier this year in upstate New York, 55-year-old Kenneth Pike, convicted of raping a 12-year-old family member and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, desperately needed a heart transplant. He had already undergone triple heart-bypass surgery and had a pacemaker implanted while incarcerated.

After the media reported that the public might have to pay for an $800,000 transplant surgery for a convicted child predator, the outcry was immediate. The Department of Corrections explained that it was "constitutionally obligated to provide health care services to inmates," and Pike's family argued he should be treated like any other patient in need.

In the end, the controversy was so red-hot that Kenneth Pike declined the surgery. At last report, he is still alive.

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners were entitled to the same medical and dental treatment as everyone else in their communities. Since then, countless state courts have upheld that ruling and repeated that prisons withholding treatment may be held liable for violating the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Well, I know lots of folks in my community who can't afford to go to doctor when they feel ill, and they may go to the dentist only when they have a raging toothache.

Whether our politicians want to admit it or not, health care has become a luxury for millions of Americans. Excluding, of course, those convicted of a crime.

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Diane Dimond
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