Do Prisoners Deserve Free Medical Treatment?

by Diane Dimond on September 5, 2011

Health Care in Prison? It is Constitutionally protected

TThey are charged with breaking laws or victimizing fellow citizens. We respond by making sure they get a lawyer – often on the taxpayer’s dime. If they plead “not guilty” we stage expensive trials for them so they can provide evidence to a judge or jury.  If convicted, they are imprisoned.

So, after all that do we have an obligation to provide prisoners with any and all medicines they might need to keep them healthy?

While so many Americans are struggling to meet health insurance and prescription costs – services for prisoners constantly increase.  And make no mistake about it, America has so many incarcerated people we are spending boat-loads of money on convicts’ medical care. Their services cannot be cut. But health care programs for the general public have been cut back time and time again.

Need a Prescription in Prison? No Problem!

Let’s take the state of Ohio as a general example of what it means to maintain the health of convicts.  The Ohio prison system has about 51,000 prisoners and it spends nearly 223 million dollars a year for their medical care. About 28 million dollars of the Ohio total is spent on inmate’s prescriptions.

In Oregon, the latest annual figures show it took 100 million dollars to take care of some 14,000 prisoners. That’s 7 times more than the state spends on education.

Texas, like every other state, has seen a spike in the number of elderly inmates who often require even more expensive medical treatments. That phenomenon and Texas’ regular medical care costs for prisoners ballooned to a staggering 545 million dollars last fiscal year.  This at a time when other crucial state programs are facing mandatory budget cuts.

Every year the price tag of tending to old and dying prisoners skyrockets. Realize these inmates must often be transported to hospitals or nursing homes where they are treated with the latest lifesaving methods and, yes, even though they are incapacitated from their illnesses the law says they must be provided with round-the-clock security guards.

Overcrowding In California Means a Huge Budget Expenditure

Wrap your head around this set of facts if you can:  In California, a state drowning in red ink, the prison system recently identified 21 inmates whose annual health care bill is just under two million dollars – EACH. There are another 1,300 guests of the California penal system who require medical attention costing $100,000.00 apiece.  Those cold hard facts caused California to adopt a bill last year to grant medical paroles so the sickest inmates could get out of prison and into federally funded health care facilities.  That, of course, only shifted the burden on paper – from the state to the federal level.

So, armed with these staggering statistics ask yourself: Do prisoners deserve all this free health care when so many of us struggle to pay for health insurance or, sadly, go without?  The answer in a humane society is yes.

But yes to a point.

Murderer Kosilek Became Michelle at Taxpayers Expense

Are you sitting down as you read this? If not, please take a seat.  In Massachusetts a cross-dressing inmate who murdered his wife in 1990 has been suing the state for health care costs related to his desire to have a sex change operation.  Robert Kosilek (who has changed his name to Michelle) has already received hormone injections, electrolysis hair removal and, most recently, a mammogram – all at taxpayer’s expense.  Kosilek remains housed in an all-male prison and her standard issue prison wardrobe has been augmented with several bras and “some make-up,” according to corrections officials. Still, after a costly ten year court battle, Kosilek says these steps have not been enough to ease her depression and the fight continues for the state to pay for a full-on sex reassignment surgery.  The case is still pending in Massachusetts’ U.S. District Court.

Earlier this year in upstate New York, 55 year old Kenneth Pike, convicted of raping a 12 year old family member and sentenced to up to 40 years in prison, desperately needed a heart transplant.  He had already undergone triple heart-bypass surgery and had a pacemaker implanted while incarcerated.  After the media reported the public might have to pay for an $800,000.00 transplant surgery for a convicted child predator, the outcry was immediate. The Department of Corrections explained it was, “Constitutionally obligated to provide health-care services to inmates” and Pike’s family argued he should be treated like any other patient in need.  In the end, the controversy was so red-hot Kenneth Pike declined the surgery.  At last report he is still alive.

Kenneth Pike Needed 800K for Heart Transplant

In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners were entitled to the same medical and dental treatment as everyone else in their communities. Since then countless state courts have upheld that ruling and repeated that prisons that withhold treatment can be held liable for violating the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Well, I know lots of folks in my community who can’t afford to go to doctor when they feel sick and they may go to the dentist only when they have a raging toothache.

Whether our politicians want to admit it or not, health care has become a luxury for millions of Americans.  Excluding, of course, those convicted of a crime.


Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 11:37 am

ABQ Journal Reader Diane Layden writes:

“Below are links to the ACLU website regarding health care in prison and American Heart Association’s assessment of health care in the US. Yours is the first article I’ve read to claim health care in prison is better than outside. I suggest you look up the number of lawsuits filed over prison health care (see third link, for example). If health care outside is poor, lack of insurance may be the reason, as in New Mexico where about 25% of the residents are uninsured.,or.r_gc.r_pw.&cad=b

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 11:38 am

Dear Reader:

I never said health care in prison is “better” – I said it is constitutionally guaranteed. Not so for those of us on the outside. ~ DD

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 11:39 am

ABQ Journal Writer Don Rios writes:

“Your article was very well done but you left out one point. This omitted point is that crime victims pay taxes too and end up subsidizing the health care of the very people who victimized them. I agree with you that the problem is horrific.

But I DO take issue with one part of your article. This where you tell to ask ourselves whether the inmates deserve this free health care when so many of us struggle to pay for our health insurance, or in too many cases, go without.

The only objectionable thing in your WHOLE article was your answer. You stated that in a humane society, the answer is YES!

I say NO!!! When I was mugged in 1965 and had to get my teeth fixed, my bill came to $997. Now I know what you will say, it isn’t that much, but in 1965 that was real money. I do know that back then gold was $140 an ounce. It is now over $1400 per ounce, so we might say that the prices have increased by a factor of ten since then. That means my dental bill in today’s dollars would have been almost $10,000.

In many cases, crime victims get NO compensation whatever and are stuck with the cost of paying for their own injuries.

Burglars in Ohio burglarized my mother’s house and to cover their tracks, set it on fire. She was not there at the time but when she returned to the house after the contractor, a good man who took a loss on the remodleing because he felt sorry for her, completed his repairs, she never felt at ease in the house again. There was a profound sense of violation. If you have not expereinced this for yourself, there is no way you can possibly understand the impact of a crime on the victim.

I say it is blatantly immoral to treat an offender better than the victim, or better than the run of average people who pay their own way and who do not commit crimes.

If instead, we executed 50% of the inmates each year, based on their criminal records or ‘rap sheets’, we would soon get the costs of incarceration down to ‘acceptable’ levels.

These inmates are not people, they are ‘former people’ as I call them. I took the term from an old story about the Soviet Union.

At any rate, I believe in a life for a life. If a man (or a woman) kills someone who has not tried to commit a crime against that person, his life should be taken to pay for the life he took. In the 1940’s, people could also be executed for rape. The crime rate was much lower then.

Why do criminals today have more rights than everyone else?

But other than this problem, your article was very well done.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 11:56 am

Twitter Friend Patti McKelvey writes:

” We provide med rx to POWs who commit crimes against our country why would we refuse american citizens?”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 12:11 pm

Facebook Friend Ronald Jeffries Tallman writes:

“Nope. I do think of it real often- privately. I have watched some docs on it heard tons of conspiracy stuff. I will specially remember that date when it comes. I do remember exactly where I was and what I was doing 10 yrs back. Mostly interested in what can be learned from it and better security measures. I feel bad for the victims and those that worked on this task.”

Brenda September 5, 2011 at 12:41 pm

In a humane society, (and what some insist on calling a “Christian”society) everyone should get health care – prisoners, victims, the poor – everyone. You either stand by your principles or you don’t.

Rita DiCarlo September 5, 2011 at 1:26 pm

In a HUMANE society, there would be no rapists, murderers, child predators,….etc. They do NOT deserve nor do I want my hard earned humane tax dollars to fund them for anything my honest community cannot be funded for. AND, transgender surgery??? ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! *GREAT article Diane! Thanks.

candice September 5, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Diane, there are some dead beat dads that don’t want to work because they don’t like paying child support. They would rather go to jail for a short time because they get free meals 3 times a day, they can sleep all day, they play cards, etc. They have no responsibility and they enjoy this, but then blame the women for them being in there. If they get sick, they are treated. whereas, if they aren’t in jail, they would have to have self pay or get a job to have insurance. Back to square one. They don’t want to work because they don’t want to pay child support. They see jail as a vacation.

Stacy September 5, 2011 at 5:49 pm

Great issue. Certainly a compelling case can be made for and against with the case for inmate health care including many “This is America…” comments. Even with that said, if there is a way in which they can be made to pay for it, than it certainly should be explored.

Bob Burtis September 5, 2011 at 8:08 pm

If private citizens cannot pay they die or suffer. Prisoners should be treated as equals. No means no healthcare.

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 8:44 pm

DD Web Site Reader (Defense Attorney) Ron Kuby:

“You can be one of them any time you want, Diane. They also get free housing–you can too.

Geez, I thought you were better than that.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 8:46 pm

Ron: Yeah, no thanks. I’ll continue my law abiding ways.

Better than that?

Like there is something wrong with wondering why all Americans can’t get health care treatments as easily and cost-free as prisoners? Come on, Ron. You’ve got to admit there’s something wrong with our health care system! ~ DD

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:41 pm

Facebook Friend Rosemary Wilkinson writes:

“Prisoners yes, illegal aliens NO!!!!”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:42 pm

Facebook Friend Stacy Sussman writes:

‘I’m so opininated on this, but the short version will be – yes because we put them there. We can’t deny them medical treatment if we the jury decide to lock them up. That’ would be very un-American of us to torture our prisoners, keep them from getting the medical care they need. So, yeah, we have to give them medical treatment. (make sense?)”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Facebook friend Ed Gerbe writes:

“Only if they work it off. Labor for services.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:43 pm

Facebook Friend Michelle D Steiner writes:


Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:44 pm

Facebook Friend Morgan Roebuck writes:

“Kill someone – free medical for life! Only in America!”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:45 pm

Facebook Friend Susan Jane Murray writes,

“Oh no, Morgan, trust me — same thing holds true here in IRELAND.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:46 pm

Facebook Friend Michelle Dingoor writes:

“If they can’t afford to pay from any other means, they should be put to work in an effort to pay it back to society.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:47 pm

Facebook Friend Marika Gerrard writes:

“Wow, so much compassion in these posts. Maybe we should just kill them all and really save money.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:49 pm

Facebook Fan Page Reader Barbara Silberfeld August-Spitzer writes:

“Only if senior citizens get free medical care also.”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:50 pm

DD Facebook Fan Page Reader Linda Santucci-Orsillo writes:

“No….not at all…They really deserve nothing !!!”

Diane Dimond September 5, 2011 at 10:51 pm

DD Facebook Fan Page Reader Rita Dicarlo writes:

“Great article! Transgender surgery?? Are you kidding me?!”

Diane Dimond September 6, 2011 at 11:26 am

Linked In Friend (on Innovative Journalism site) Jim Brady writes:

“Two separate issues, neither dealing with journalism. But since you brought it up, in a modern country such as the US, it’s both economically and morally clear both should have accesss to health care. To use these as some sort of ccompetition is the kind of false choice that property-over-humanity thinkers would like to suck us into.
Better question for journalism: What is the cost of America’s status as the world’s highest population of jailed and imprisoned citizens? Do other civilized nations subsidize a private prison industry the way states such as Texas do? What is the lobbying record of private prison corporations on policies such as mandatory sentencing for non-violent crime, and for maintaining prohibition laws regarding various classes of drugs that otherwise could be taxed? These policy costs, along with federal support for price-setting of pharmaceuticals in the US, may indicate a funding formula that could make public health much improved.”

Diane Dimond September 6, 2011 at 11:30 am

DD Website Reader Susan Jane Murray writes:

“Still, if all prisoners are allowed to rot in rat-infested, disease-infested prisons do you people REALLY think it wouldn’t affect your entire country? With all this medical care you don’t receive, you’d have one hell of a disease-ridden country!!!! YECH!! YECH!, enjoy your bubonic plague, TB, small pox, polio, typhoid, etc. etc. Good luck!”

Diane Dimond September 6, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Facebook Friend Olivia Cribbs writes:

“Stacy. We put them there because THEY did something wrong to get there. Maybe rape or murder someone’s loved one. I say let the punishment match the crime. They do not deserve Anything.”

Diane Dimond September 6, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Facebook Friend Stacy Sussman writes:

“Olivia – it’s ok they get a cold sandwich, but you cannot deprive someone of medical care – we don’t do that here in America.”

Diane Dimond September 6, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Facebook Friend Olivia Cribbs writes:

“If it comes down to medical care for a person incarcerated or someone who has been a great citizen, cared for their family and helped others, I believe the citizen should be cared for first not the prisoner. They made the choice to do the crime we the people should not cater to their needs. Sorry but I am very adamant about this. My 2 adopted daughters were raped daily by their bio- father who is now incarcerated and I can tell you that I wouldn’t spit on him if he was on fire. I hope he dies a miserable death in prison with no medical attention.”

Diane Dimond September 8, 2011 at 11:24 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Dr. Michael Rosinia writes:

“Your article on prison healthcare appeared in the Sunday Albuquerque Journal. I could not be more in accord with what you wrote. I am a dentist and have worked in prisons both here (New Mexico) and Louisiana. The prisoners are afforded dental health care beyond what is clinically indicated in many cases.
I thoroughly believe that care should be available to those in need as needed. But I feel,as you have indicated,that many of the
procedures have gone beyond the,”as needed” phase. All,at no cost to the patient.
The ironical thing is that many patients who I have seen when working in private clinics cannot afford dentistry as needed. This population is senior citizens,people who are on medicare. As I have seen it,there are no provisions for dental care for medicare
patients. These people must meet general dental fees or forego dental care. This is in a period when good digestion is paramount for general health.
Oral health must be set aside when financial obligations cannot be met. It seems to me that these people have the right to eat but not to chew.
One patient told me when I suggested a partial denture, “I’m on Medicare,I can get a heart transplant easier than a set of teeth”.
So,your article really hit home with me. This is the other side of the injustice. or, more aptly put, crime pays.”

Joe October 10, 2012 at 4:28 pm

To say that health is becoming a luxury for millions is wholly disingenuous. First off, health care WAS a luxury to almost everyone in this country not so long ago. You really need some perspective. Now, there are truly SOME people who can’t afford health care (though I’ve never seen or met one), but that number is so small as to be insignificant. Those people who claim not to be able to afford health care cannot because they have chosen OTHER luxuries over health care. That being said, convicted criminals should only have access to health care they can afford.

Diane Dimond October 10, 2012 at 5:17 pm

And, Joe….If they have been locked up for years how do you suppose convicted criminals would EVER be able to afford any kind of health care? If they are in a prison that offers paying jobs they’ll only make about 20 cents an hour. I’m going turn your suggestion back to you – get some perspective. ~ DD

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