Prisons and Profit

Very long but excellent journalism in Mother Jones from Shane Bauer, who spent 4 months working undercover in a Louisiana private prison. Hint: it’s terrible. Here’s one terrible facet from an almost endless number of ways in which this system is failing:

If [an inmate] were sent to the hospital, CCA would be contractually obligated to pay for his stay. For a for-profit company, this presents a dilemma. Even a short hospital stay is a major expense for an inmate who brings the company about $34 per day. And that’s aside from the cost of having two guards keep watch over him. […]

One day, I meet a man with no legs in a wheelchair. His name is Robert Scott. (He consented to having his real name used.) He’s been at Winn 12 years. “I was walking when I got here,” he tells me. “I was walking, had all my fingers.” I notice he is wearing fingerless gloves with nothing poking out of them. “They took my legs off in January and my fingers in June. Gangrene don’t play. I kept going to the infirmary, saying, ‘My feet hurt. My feet hurt.’ They said, ‘Ain’t nothin’ wrong wicha. I don’t see nothin’ wrong wicha.’ They didn’t believe me, or they talk bad to me—’I can’t believe you comin’ up here!'”

His medical records show that in the space of four months he made at least nine requests to see a doctor. He complained of sore spots on his feet, swelling, oozing pus, and pain so severe he couldn’t sleep. When he visited the infirmary, medical staff offered him sole pads, corn removal strips, and Motrin. He says he once showed his swollen foot, dripping with pus, to the warden. On one of these occasions, Scott alleges in a federal lawsuit against CCA, a nurse told him, “Ain’t nothing wrong with you. If you make another medical emergency you will receive a disciplinary write-up for malingering.” He filed a written request to be taken to a hospital for a second opinion, but it was denied.

Eventually, numbness spread to his hands, but the infirmary refused to treat him. His fingertips and toes turned black and wept pus. Inmates began to fear his condition was contagious. When Scott’s sleeplessness kept another inmate awake, the inmate threatened to kill him if he was not moved to another tier. A resulting altercation drew the attention of staff, who finally sent him to the local hospital.

Just gruesome.

Capitalism is pretty great if you want to drive down the price of electronics. It does less well in industries without meaningful competition that traffic in human rights and services. If you can make more money by denying service, then it’s in a company’s best interest to provide the barest minimum possible and stop slashing just before losing business.

Sad thing is, despite how scummy the CCA prisons clearly are, the parallels with the US healthcare system are pretty easy to make.

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