How free prisoner health care came to be
If you haven’t heard the story, it goes something like this (and it’s true): Man walks into a bank and hands the teller a note stating he has a gun and is robbing the bank for the amount of one dollar. Then, the man sits and waits for police to arrest him. This man is James Richard Verone. Think he’s crazy? Think again.
Verone, who ended up not having a gun, robbed the bank not for money, but for health care. After working 17 years as a deliveryman for Coca-Cola, he was laid off and couldn’t find steady work. After withstanding a few minor medical conditions, he developed a protrusion in his chest and decided to seek disability from the federal government. He was denied coverage. With dwindling options and increasing daily physical pain, Verone eventually chose the only way to get needed medical attention: go to jail (Jilani, 2011).
Prisoner health care: It’s the law
Free health care for prisoners is a relatively new thing. For the first 200 years of America’s existence, prisoners faced harsh conditions and little to no medical coverage. In the early 1970s, “horrendous medical conditions [were revealed] in which inmates were used without supervision to perform medical care on their fellows, including pulling teeth, suturing and surgery” (Rold, 2006).
Then things changed in 1976 when the Supreme Court heard a case titled Estelle v. Gamble. This landmark court case forever transformed prisoner health care. In short, Gamble was incarcerated and working on a prison farm in Texas. A bail of hay fell and injured his back. Gamble, “sued the chief prison doctor, the warden and W.J. Estelle, director of the state department of corrections, for lack of adequate medical treatment, for denying him a work excuse and for punishing him for refusing to work when medically unfit” (Rold, 2006).
Although Gamble ended up losing his case due to medical malpractice because, “in the three months after his injury, he was seen 17 times by various medical personnel. His complaints were grounded in malpractice, not deliberate indifference” (Rold, 2006). According to the Supreme Court, the Eighth Amendment does not hold prison officials responsible for malpractice but it does protect three basic rights for prisoners:
- The right to access to care — emergency and routine — when needed.
- The right to care that is ordered — once a health care professional orders treatment for a serious condition, the courts will protect, as a matter of constitutional law, the patient’s right to receive that treatment without undue delay.
- The right to a professional medical judgment (Rold, 2006).
These rights are sometimes referred to as Estelle’s Three Basic Rights and have continued to guide best practices for prisoner health care up until modern day.
Prisoner health care presents a problem
Verone robbed the bank because health care for prisoners is free, in a sense. Obviously, a prisoner’s freedom has been compromised so free health care comes with the price of liberty. It also costs state and federal governments money in the form of taxes, which citizens end up paying. This concept tends to upset many American citizens. Why should prisoners, many of whom have committed heinous acts, get free health care while many poor, hard-working, law-abiding citizens struggle to get adequate health care or are buried by mountainous medical debts?
In light of today’s economic hardships, costs of imprisonment and controversies over universal health care, the above question is getting more and more attention. And “crimes” like that of James Richard Verone only help to project this problem to the mainstream. Expect to hear more about prisoner health care in the near future.