Columns 2007

Health care provided in prison

In the spirit of the holiday season, let me tell you what I resent. I resent that my tax dollars are going to pay for Papa Pilgrim to get medical care while he’s in prison.  I resent the heck out of it.  Because, and I’m just guessing here but I’m willing to bet I’m guessing right, there is no similar, publicly funded program in place for his children to receive long term counseling to overcome the damage his version of religion has done to them. He gets a free ride and they get to spend the rest of their lives trying to understand the horror of their childhood.

It seems to me there is something wrong in a society that can’t afford to provide universal health care to its populace unless that populace commits crimes that land it in jail. Then there are doctors, diagnostics, pills and dialysis available. Perhaps the best quote I’ve seen on this topic came from John Carlin III as reported in a story in Saturday’s ADN. He has illnesses that require regular medication. Since he’s about to be sentenced for his part in a murder, it’s probably safe to assume that he’ll be living off society for quite a while and we will be responsible for seeing that he gets that medication.  Here’s what he has to say about that.  “You have no real input into what medicines you take. They make decisions for you. … It’s like a totalitarian society. … It’s just the way it is in here.”

No, really?  Jail is like a totalitarian society in which they are not particularly solicitous of your wants or preferences? How dare they?  Why any four star hotel will tell you that catering to the whims of guests is first and foremost in making them return customers.  Oh that’s right. You’re in jail, not a hotel.  Since you are there for murder, society might be forgiven for not being overly concerned about consulting you on your dining preferences – or whether generic is ok.

I know it is a mark of an advanced and civil society to treat inmates humanely.  But I just keep coming back to the fact that it seems plain wrong that we treat our prisoners more humanely than our low-income general population.  The current administration in Washington contorts itself into amazing positions trying to justify anything that will seem to solve the health care problem short of the one thing that will solve the problem – universal health care, something almost every other first world nation routinely offers its citizens.

Before you all start screaming about how bad those systems are and how long you have to wait to see a doctor, let me remind you that without government sponsored health care, many people will NEVER see a doctor until the situation has become life threatening.  Given the choice between never seeing a doctor and waiting three or even six months for an appointment, I’m betting most people would take that appointment.

I believe it was our current Chief Decider who said so eloquently that he was going to veto a bill to provide health care to more children because he did not believe the government should come between people and their doctors. He believes doctors and patients should make the best health care decisions possible without outside interference. Amen to that I say. Except, f course, for that one little glitch. Without insurance, you don’t have a doctor.

Unless you are Papa Pilgrim or Mr. Carlin III, or any number of other prisoners who enter the system with untreated illnesses that they now expect will be handled through their hosts, either the state of Alaska or the US government. Yep, that same US government that can’t give you coverage despite the fact that you work two or three jobs to keep your family fed and the heat on and a roof over you head. 

I know we need to provide these prisoners with basic care. It’s the humane thing to do and we should be humane if only to differentiate ourselves from them.  But am I wrong in thinking that the basic message going out here is that if you need health care, break the law. There’s one heckuva good universal health care program going on in jail. Not the best program, maybe. You have limited input into it. You may not have access to the latest treatments and most expensive procedures. But it’s better than nothing. And nothing is what your government is offering you outside of the penitentiary. Gives a whole new meaning to being law abiding, doesn’t it?