As the battle lines for health care reform are being drawn – and redrawn – a silent segment of the population is strategically left out of the conversation. A group of individuals who have been deemed enemies of society, and cast away behind iron bars to fend for themselves. In California, health care in the state’s 33 prisons is so inadequate that one unnecessary death takes place per week, as inmates are often stacked in triple bunk beds in hallways and gymnasiums. With nearly twice the number of prisoners than it was designed to hold, California prisons will have to be cut by about 40,000 in the next two years – and it’s about time.
Federal judges just released a 184-page order demanding that California’s inmate population be reduced by 27%, and gave the state 45 days to come up with a plan. In what they termed an ‘unconstitutional prison health care system’, the three-judge panel concluded that disease was spreading rampantly and prisoner-on-prisoner violence was all but unavoidable. Forced to close a $26 billion dollar budget gap, California will now have to look at mechanisms to reducing its extensive prison spending, which in 2007 topped out at nearly $10 billion (approximately $49,000 for each inmate).
Whether it’s for pure economic reasons or for an actual concern over the well being of prisoners, California will hopefully serve as an example for a reversal of the ever-growing prison industrial complex. A system that unfairly profiles and detains minorities, American jails produce a vicious cycle of recidivism and community breakdown. Last year, the Pew Center on the States released a scathing report stating that one in every 100 American adults was in jail, and that an astonishing one in 15 Black adults was behind bars. According to government reports in 2007, there were three times as many Blacks in jail than in college dorms, with Latinos not far behind at 2.7 times more behind bars than in secondary schooling.