In the last weeks I have been giving talks about various aspects of California corrections in universities all over the Bay Area. Interactions with college students are refreshing and interesting, especially as local elections are rolling in.
One argument I've heard a few times now in these discussions has to do with bitterness about the fact that inmates receive free health care, while those of us on the outside pay for our health care out of pocket. That this argument persists in the face of the Brown v. Plata aftermath is a grim reminder of the misinformation out there. For the benefit of those of our readers who hear this argument made in their immediate vicinity, or who have made this argument, here are some ways to answer it.
First, any complaint about inmates' "free health care" begs the question whether what they receive in prison is, in fact, health care. The medical system in California prisons is so broken and inept that it was handed, several years ago, to a federal receiver. The budgetary woes have consistently hindered the receivership's efforts to reform the system. And, eventually, the Supreme Court affirmed a three-judge federal panel decision to release tens of thousands of inmates because health care could not be provided given the overcrowding status of the prison. The bottom line, according to Jeanne Woodford, is that short-term inmates receive exams and an intake, and little beyond that. The Supreme Court decision and the brief appendices cite numerous examples of unnecessary disease and preventable death in California institutions. No, this is not comparable, by any standard, to whatever health care you might be receiving on the outside.
Second, the requirement to provide inmates with health care in prison stems from the fact that the government put them there. Warehousing people against their will is one thing. Doing so without caring for their basic needs is quite another. Some argue, of course, that this could be done more cheaply and efficiently. Much of the expense stems from the fact that we insist on imprisoning elderly, infirm inmates. The financial crisis is finally making us rethink this policy. And, by the way, check out Legal Services for Prisoners with Children's initiative on behalf of old prisoners.
Third, apparently the free health care for inmates idea is no longer the universal rule. Much to my horror, I find that in some places, apparently, this is no longer the case.
As a coda, ever since I relocated to the United States I have been perpetually astonished at how little people in this country expect from their government. The argument against free health care for inmates is saddening because of its focus not on what you deserve to have, but on what someone else does not deserve to have. We talked about this "othering" of criminals before. Why not insist on being provided national health care at low or no cost, as is the case for every other industrialized democracy? The spite and bitterness against inmates is a distraction from a common goal, which is to be treated decently and fairly and being taken care of by one's government, and it is proof that just and reasonable citizen expectations can be confounded if people are presented with an enemy to hate. I urge Californians to look beyond these divisive mechanisms and really think about their expectations from their leaders.