A lengthy article recently published in The New Yorker is shining a light on the extraordinary extent to which private companies have taken over health care in prisons. It is a trend that has grown quietly – and largely out of sight – over the last several decades, combining many of the worst elements of both our dysfunctional national health care system and the morally and legally ambiguous trend toward privately-run, for-profit, prisons.
The article details numerous cases in which private companies are alleged to have provided inadequate care whether through neglect or inadequate staffing and concludes: “Taken as a whole, evidence from cases across the country suggests that four decades of policy failures in both health care and criminal justice reform have left a largely neglected population vulnerable and, at times, at risk, and that for-profit companies, which were promoted as a solution, have instead become an integral part of a troubled system.”
Because prisoners represent a population with which many people have little sympathy, it is important to note here that cities, states and the federal government have a legal obligation to care for the people they lock up. “The standard of care that incarcerated people have a right to receive was established in the landmark case of Estelle v Gamble in 1976,” the magazine notes. In that case the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that “deliberate indifference to serious medical needs of prisoners” violates the constitution’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishment.” As the article goes on to note, “Estelle also spawned a wave of civil-rights litigation seeking to enforce the Eighth Amendment protection,” a process which, over time, caused the standard of required care to become more precisely defined.