People who enter correctional institutions surrender their freedom, but not their humanity. So, does this mean that prisoners are entitled to human rights, and is conventional comprehensive medical care one of them?
Even when it’s expensive? And even when the requirement for care was generated by misbehavior by the patient him or herself?
Almost everybody who is in prison got there by doing something illegal, like possession of, or selling, narcotics. Almost half the people in the state of New Mexico’s prisons, 44%, have been diagnosed with hepatitis C. More than half of them, 56%, think they got the disease by taking an illegal injectable drug. So, should they be eligible for the kind of medical care most insured patients get out in the civilian world at public expense?
Until about five years ago, there was no need to ask such difficult questions. The symptoms of hepatitis C were so unobtrusive that by the time the patient complained, liver damage was so severe that death was usually only months away. And the treatments that were available were painful and not necessarily effective.
Then in 2014 a medical breakthrough in Israel produced a cure. Reliable treatments saved and extended lives, and the price came down from $84,000 to about $20,000 and most medical insurers, even the public providers like Medicare and Medicaid, bought in.
But prisoners are only eligible for Medicare/Medicaid on release. Those still in confinement are almost always locked out of care, which can in itself be a death sentence.
In the state prisons of New Mexico, some 3,000 prisoners have been diagnosed with hepatitis C. During the 2018 fiscal year, just 46 received treatment.
Does this represent an un-constitutional denial of human rights? There are judges in other states who have said it is. It seems only a matter of time before the question is raised in court in New Mexico.
TED ALCORN is a researcher, journalist, and educator with expertise in gun violence prevention policies and programs. A lecturer at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and New York University, he also contributes public health reporting to the New York Times, The Lancet, and other publications. He was a founding employee of Everytown For Gun Safety, where he was the Research Director and then the Director of Innovation, and he previously served as a policy analyst in the Office of the Mayor of New York City. He earned graduate degrees as a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Fellow at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and their School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), and lived in Beijing, China as a Henry Luce scholar. He lives in New York City and was raised in New Mexico.