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.
The Supreme Court has said prisons must provide adequate medical services. State legislators know that, and ten years ago they were given a detailed report of serious problems with healthcare behind bars in Virginia.
But Hope Amezquita with Virgnia’s ACLU says they did nothing, and her colleague, lawyer Gabe Eber, says voters probably didn’t care.“A lot of people would say, ‘I don’t have a right to healthcare. I don’t have insurance. I can’t get my cavities filled. Why should this murderer or this thief or this sex offender get free healthcare? That’s probably one of the reasons there hasn’t been more outrage.”
But under the Affordable Care Act, more Americans will have coverage, and voters may begin to see it as a moral right. They may also tire of spending a billion dollars a year on corrections.
“You can build new prisons, or you can build college classrooms, but you can’t do both.”
Marc Mauer heads the Sentencing Project in Washington, DC - a non-profit that does research and lobbies for alternatives to prisons. “And I think there’s also growing recognition that it doesn’t do much good to just sound tough on crime, we need to be smart on crime. We need to be looking at policies and programs that can actually provide safety, not just sound good in an election campaign.”
That could mean more community programs for offenders, and fewer people behind bars. Already the state’s supermax prisons are taking many men out of solitary confinement, teaching them coping skills, giving them incentives to behave, and there have - in fact - been 56% fewer problems with discipline.
There could be changes for Virginia’s older inmates. The parole board has rarely used the geriatric provision that allows early release of the elderly. Often, model prisoners are told No, because they committed a serious crime, essentially ignoring the idea that prisoners can be rehabilitated. If a new governor appoints a more lenient board, thousands of prisoners over 60 could be freed.
The state could also face up to a serious medical problem spread by IV drug use, tattooing and sex in state prisons - a viral liver disease that can kill. Here, again, is ACLU Attorney Gabe Eber. “Hepatitis-C is a huge problem in prisons. It’s very expensive to treat. So there’s a real hesitancy of correctional systems to start treatment. .”
Unlike neighboring Maryland, Virginia doesn’t even screen for hepatitis-C, and public health officials warn that as infected prisoners leave state correctional centers, they could bring an epidemic of this disease into the community.
One final area to watch is privatization. Gabe Eber, Staff Counsel to the ACLU’S National Prison Project, say government alone should administer prisons and the healthcare they provide:
“By adding a private, for-profit corporation, you’re changing the nature of the punishment. You’re giving this corporation considerable power over prisoners who are in the custody of the state, and when you put a profit motive into the provision of healthcare, it may not necessarily be in the interest of the taxpayers or more importantly the prisoners.”
But the business of caring for prisoners appears to be a profitable one, and companies pay to play. Virginia’s largest provider of medical services to prisons, Corizon, paid lobbyists here more than $21,000 this year, and its CEO gave $500 to the campaign of Republican Ken Cucinelli. Another provider, the GEO Group, spent nearly $15,000 on lobbyists, and one of their top competitors, Armor Correctional Health Services, contributed $25,000 to the campaign of Democrat Terry McAuliffe.