This post was written by Katie Gottschalk and Rebecca Reingold.
On August 18th, the United States Justice Department declared its plan to end the use of privately run prisons. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates made the announcement after officials concluded that private prison facilities are both less safe and less effective at providing correctional services than those run by the government. This progressive move should be applauded, and progress towards improved prison conditions should be duplicated in other areas, such as health services.
There is no central data collection on prison healthcare privatization. However, Dr. Marc Stern, an expert on correctional health and former head doctor of Washington state prisons, estimates that more than half of all state and local prisons and jails have outsourced their healthcare (in an industry that is worth more than $3 billion a year). A Justice Department report published earlier this year bolsters this estimation, stating that the federal prison system’s spending on outsourced healthcare went from $263 million in 2010 to $327 million in 2014, an increase of 24%.
But it is not only the cost of private prison healthcare – a survey of 69 prisons found that all of them paid much more for medical services than Medicare rates – which is proving problematic, it is also the quality. Newspaper articles and op-eds have documented cases of poor pain management, unqualified medical personnel, and denials of needed treatment and surgeries in prisons that have outsourced their healthcare to for-profit corporations.
And the lawsuits are underway. In Monterey County, California, the ACLU has brought a class-action lawsuit against the California Forensic Medical Group (CFMG) over its medical and mental healthcare failures. This suit highlighted various incidents, including one in which a diabetic prisoner was deprived of insulin, and alleged that CFMG “provides deficient medical care in nearly every respect…and [inmates] fail to receive timely or appropriate treatment, resulting in unnecessary and prolonged pain, suffering, worsening of their conditions, and sometimes even death”.
Last year Corizon, a private, for-profit health-care firm serving more than 320,000 inmates in 25 states, paid out $8.3 million to the family of Martin Harrison. During his detention, Harrison died after suffering hallucinations, a symptom of a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that the unsupervised licensed vocational nurse provided by Corizon failed to spot.
The Justice Department’s decision will directly affect only 13 federal facilities, housing 22,000 of the country’s 193,000 federal prisoners. But these numbers do not reflect the full impact that this decision may have on the rest of the country’s prison population.
The economic motivations that drive the privatization of prisons and prison healthcare are at odds with the institution’s social missions – let’s support our policy makers and let this declaration to end prison privatization be the first of many.