The Problem with Private Prisons and Prison Healthcare

Maeve Healy

In 1976, the United States Supreme Court presided over the case of Estelle vs Gamble.  J.W. Gamble, a Texas inmate, had filed a complaint detailing how his 8th amendment rights had been violated because he was unable to receive medical care from his prison for an injury. Mr. Gamble did not win his case, but the Supreme Court did end up ruling that all inmates are entitled to receive adequate medical care. Unfortunately, the reality of prison healthcare is that it’s not adequate at all. For those who have watched shows like Orange is the New Black, Jail Birds, or any other television show dealing with prisoners, the depiction of health care for inmates is pretty bleak. These documentaries and television shows don’t get everything that happens in prison right, but on the subject of the healthcare they definitely do. 

American prisons are classified in two different ways: private or public. Private prisons are typically run by large corporations, a few being Core Civic (CCA) and the GEO group. These companies make money based on the difference between the amount of money they are granted by the government to run prisons, and how much of that money they actually spend. Because their profit is based on this difference, these companies are willing to cut as many costs as possible. This includes taking advantage of extremely cheap labor prisons can offer: sometimes prisoners can earn as little as 8 cents an hour.  How exactly is this legal? Well, according to the thirteenth amendment (the amendment that ended slavery in the United States), slavery is illegal in all cases except for one: as punishment for a crime. So, using this idea, CCA began the first for-profit prison in the early 1980s, and used extremely low wages in order to dodge any possible accusations of slavery. The prison system has not been the same since, and quality of life for inmates has gone down immensely. Considering how low wages are for inmates, health care should be free right? Well, not exactly. 42 states require up to $100 per year from inmates for basic medical care, an enormous sum of money when compared to the average amount of money inmates make per day. Inmates also typically need to buy stamps, paper, or other items from commissary in order to survive, but with a giant medical cost many are unable to purchase the things that they need.

Many prisons also hire healthcare companies to execute medical care needed in prison. Corizon Healthcare is a prime example of one of these companies, a few others being Correct Care Solutions and Wexford Health Sources. These companies are based on the idea of cutting as many costs as possible in order to generate the largest profit, the exact same way many private prisons are. Prison healthcare companies cutting costs has lead to the deaths of inmates, or development of terminal illnesses in some cases. For instance, take the case of Walter Jordan. Walter Jordan was serving his sentence in Arizona when he found out he had skin cancer. His prison’s health care company, Corizon, knew of his condition and delayed his chemotherapy which ultimately was the reason his life ended. Mr. Jordan later wrote a letter to the Phoenix Federal Court titled “Notice of Impending Death” listing Corizon and the Arizona Department of Corrections as the reasons he was dying. He died a few days after writing the note. Unfortunately, there are thousands of other inmates who had the same story as Mr. Jordan. 40% of inmates who have died in prison received inadequate healthcare, and Walter Jordan is only one. The lack of government presence and increase of company influence healthcare policies of prisons will keep causing medical issues in prisons. If something doesn’t change, many inmates will face the same fate that Walter Jordan did.

Prison health care in the United States is arguably one of the most inhumane industries in the entire world. The Supreme Court may have ruled that all prisoners are entitled to adequate healthcare, but so many institutions have profited off of making it inadequate. Until companies stop profiting off of slavery and begin to treat inmates in a more humane way, the quality of life and health care for inmates will continue to suffer. 

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