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Dispatches from the Inside: Healthcare for all?

Richard Gilliam is incarcerated at the California Men's Colony (CMC).

January 10, 2013

Even now, we tend to believe our elected officials when they tell us something.  Even though, time after time, the statements they make turn out to be inaccurate, misleading or downright false.  We believe them because we want to be right about the people we choose to lead us.  If THEY are untruthful or dishonest, what does that say about the choices WE make?  But politicians do color the truth.

Therefore, as an eye-witness to the facts, I feel compelled to offer my version of the truth after reading an LA Times article entitled: "Brown Says State's Prison Crises 'Over'." The governor's comments were occasioned by a California prison population to a maximum of 137.5 percent of design capacity, which translates to approximately 110,000 prisoners system-wide. Governor Brown wants the state to regain control of prisoner healthcare, which "has been under federal control since 2005," the Times reported. 

The governor contents that improvements made to prisoner healthcare are more than sufficient to pass constitutional muster, even though the state has not met the court's population reduction targets.

Well let me offer up an honest appraisal.  I've written previously about one of my contemporaries; Gerald J. is serving a lengthy sentence for burglary, driven by an addiction to drugs.  He's middle-aged, overweight and diabetic.  Approximately eight months ago, after a routine diagnostic blood test, Gerald was told his enzyme count was suspiciously elevated.  He saw a prison urologist for more tests and was told he should get the results back within a week.  It took six months for Gerald to learn he had Prostate Cancer.  It’s been approximately nine months since he received the diagnosis, and he has yet to begin treatment.  While the days and weeks tick by and the cancer grows, he’s forced to wait until prison doctors decide to act.

Ironically, during the same period it was announced that Governor Brown had discovered that he also had Prostate Cancer.  I just read in a sidebar article to the prison healthcare report that the governor has completed a six-week course of radiation treatment for his cancer.  Gerald has yet to begin any treatment whatsoever, and has no choice but to wait for prison doctors to do something.  Tick tock, tick tock.

I realize Gerald’s health, or that of any prisoner, may not be as important as the Governor’s, but it matters to Gerald and to those who care about him.  Without the federal court, or somebody to maintain oversight of prison healthcare, I believe the words of Jeanne Woodford, former Warden at San Quentin and former head of the California Department of Corrections, will be prophetic.  She stated: “Without court oversight, resources tend to get taken away.”

Is prison healthcare better than it was a few years ago?  Absolutely.  Is it still slow and inefficient?  Yes.  The reality is that as long as there is a lack of money to satisfy everybody, the powerless and disenfranchised will suffer the most.  Thank God there are people that believe that all human life is worth preserving, because many of our elected officials believe spending money for prisoner healthcare is pouring dollars “down the rat hole of incarceration.”  Governor Brown says so, so it must be true, right?

Crosscurrents Richard Gilliam