By the end of this year, California must release 9,600 prisoners from the nation’s largest correctional system, because the Supreme Court says overcrowding makes it impossible to provide adequate healthcare for inmates.
Failing to do so constitutes cruel and unusual punishment - a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Virginia’s prisons are also crowded and facing a lawsuit over medical care that will be heard this spring, but on other reasons for change in the Commonwealth’s correctional centers.
Fifty years ago, this country began closing mental hospitals where people with psychiatric disorders were often warehoused. The idea was to send patients back to their communities, where they would live better lives with help from local mental health programs.
Unfortunately, those services were limited, and many people ended up on the streets or behind bars. Today, up to 18% of inmates in Virginia prisons are taking drugs for psychiatric conditions, and critics say some are being punished because they can’t comply with prison rules.
The state of Virginia spends an average of $5,300 a year per inmate for medical care in prisons, and that cost has been rising 5-7 percent per year, but taxpayers may not be getting their money’s worth, and people locked up for minor crimes could be paying with their lives.
There are about 30,000 Virginians in state prisons, and Virginia spends more than $25,000 a year to house each of them, making the Department of Corrections the most expensive agency in Richmond, with a billion dollar annual budget.
It spends $160 million on healthcare, but critics say that care is inadequate, and some inmates could be dying for lack of medical attention. Another 30,000 people are locked up in city or county jails, and as we'll hear throughout this series, their care is also questionable.