Inmate Healthcare Costs: Burden Falls on You, the Taxpayer
(WHNT) – “We do not ever refuse medical care for anybody,” says Chief Deputy Steve Morrison.
Bookkeepers at the Madison County Detention Center have to work with seven-figure numbers to keep that statement true.
Morrison tells us the budget for medical care in the facility is about three million dollars a year.
In case you wondered, those three million dollars used to care for the aches and pains of accused criminals – they come straight from your pockets. It’s taxpayer money.
Even more remarkable, it costs that much to keep the people in here healthy, even though they don’t usually stick around that long.
Morrison notes, “Our average stay is about 25.1 days.”
But in those brief visits, where people wait for bail money or court dates, they share their needs with us, the taxpayers. And many have expensive needs, like medicine.
“With HIV patients, we’ve got several that are $5,400 per inmate per month for medication,” explains Morrison.
He also tells us of one inmate who needed a pacemaker, to keep his ticker on beat, helping him count out time served.
That one operation for him, it cost us $186,000.
Morrison goes on to say one inmate here in the course of his stay even managed to cost the jail $289,000, saying, “Well, when you’re in a coma for several months in the hospital and they’re doing all the tests to find out what the problems are, that’s typically what it is. It’s very, very expensive in the healthcare.’”
Morrison says the man who spent his jail time getting hospital treatment on the jail’s dime was an undiagnosed diabetic and slipped into a coma.
The jail was helpless to do anything but pay for his care.
Morrison adds, “We have to provide medical care to them. It’s required by our constitution. We’re also required to make sure they’re safe and secure while they’re incarcerated. They’re in pre-trial detention; they have not been found guilty yet. So we have to provide the care to keep them alive to go to court.”
That burden rests pretty much entirely on the jail itself. Morrison says Medicaid stops as soon as inmates walk through the door and often insurance plans cancel if you get incarcerated.
Morrison says around 950 people count down their days in the cells of this building. Many of them spend their time wondering who they hurt to deserve this.
“I think we have 32 or 33 people in for murder right now,” notes Morrison, “And probably another hundred or so violent offenders. So the majority are not violent offenders.”
So who’s left to fill these cells?
Morrison says, “One of our largest problems at this point is mental illness. We have people here that should not be in jail, they should be in a mental hospital. Those spaces are being done away with now because of the economy. We don’t have anywhere to take them.”
Many of them get brought in for disturbing the peace, for wrestling their demons a little too publicly.
Many are homeless, until they wind up in jail. They find a home with tight quarters, but at least there are hot meals and medical care.
Morrison adds that the very poor also take up a lot of room and resources, saying, “If you have a $250 traffic fine and you can’t pay it, you may stay here for six months before you go before a court. You never know, and to me, that’s a travesty.”
When we’re paying three million dollars for healthcare alone, can we not find a better place for people struggling with health and wealth? Because this feels like a nightmare for the poor, the mentally ill, and the taxpayers.
“Somebody’s got to wake up somewhere,” say Morrison, “They’re all going to be in the jails.”
He also tells WHNT News 19 they’ve already done a lot to curtail medical costs. They’ve got contractors helping negotiate prices. They’ve even managed to get some expensive medications for free.
But as long as the number of inmates hovers at the same level, costs will too.