COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to take a deeper look at the healthcare systems for those in institutional settings. The questions posed in the ACLU article by Maria Morris are critical to be answered. As a society it is our responsibility to care for those who are wards of the state. But there is always a portion of the population that pushes back with comments about what felons “deserve” or that don’t care about the health of those who are incarcerated. This blog installment about the ‘cost of compassion’ is for them.
For this discussion we can put aside the emotive arguments surrounding illness, and incarceration. Instead let’s look at the fiscal implications of a pandemic or any communicable disease in an incarceration setting. To set the stage we need to recall the foundation that the 8th amendment of the constitution provides for the provision of health care to inmates as a guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment; as a nation we must provide health care. As a capitalist country, taxpayers must also pay for that health care. Anyone who has been to a doctor recently would also know that the provision of care is not inexpensive.
Most incarceration facilities have relatively basic health care facilities that can accommodate general patient ailments and perhaps some more long-term diseases, such as diabetes or renal disease; but in general facilities are basic. So, what happens when we have a sick inmate that has to have treatment outside the confines of the facility? Inmates who need care above what the facility can provide are taken to local hospitals or clinics…lets break down those costs:
- Transportation of the inmate (ambulance)
- 1-3 guards (depending on their custody level) to accompany the inmate, if they are there for an extended or overnight stay, add overtime to their salaries
- The cost for actual treatment
- The cost for any medications
- The cost for transportation back to the prison (ambulance)
These costs are typically not discounted for the state or federal government. Thus, 1 overnight trip to an outside health care facility for 1 inmate can cost in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. Overlaid on the possibility of a highly contagious, communicable disease such as COVID-19, whereby individuals are having to spend multiple days in hospitals and on expensive equipment such as ventilators, you can see how it could be financially devastating. The cost of compassion greatly mitigates the financial damages to the tax payer.
It is important with this information, that prisons and jails have the necessary support they need to create and execute plans for mass illness in their facilities. This kind of planning not only saves tax payer money but can save lives.