Incarceration doesn't come cheap
· Jun 20, 2018 Updated Jun 20, 2018
A lawsuit alleging the wrongful death of a Morgan County Jail inmate puts the spotlight on a growing problem. Incarceration is expensive, and as long as Alabamians resist paying higher taxes, especially to house inmates, conditions will either continue to deteriorate or the state will have to jail fewer people.
There’s a popular saying in America: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” But it has a flip side few consider: You can’t lock people up without spending a buck.
Many bucks, it turns out. Jails and prisons don’t come cheap, and while politicians and jailers have tried over the years to make inmates pay somehow for their own incarceration, neither prison labor nor schemes like charging outrageous rates to make phone calls are going to make incarceration pay for itself, never mind the point at which such ideas amount to cruel and unusual punishment in the eyes of the courts.
As overcrowding and the ongoing legal wrangling over mental health treatment in Alabama’s prisons make clear, Alabama voters and their elected representatives demand more incarceration than they’d like to pay for. This is also true at the local level, where locking up people costs more than local leaders want to pay.
A wrongful death suit in federal court claims a Morgan County Jail inmate died because of inadequate care by contracted health care providers.
“Systemically these correctional health care providers save money by delaying expensive care,” said the plaintiff’s lawyer, Hank Sherrod of Florence. “Sometimes they can do that and maybe somebody suffers but nobody dies. If they roll the dice enough times, bad stuff can happen.”
The complaint alleges Vanuelas Nicholas Martinez died April 21, 2015, at Decatur Morgan Hospital shortly after being transported there from the Morgan County Jail. Martinez’s sister alleges two different health care providers hired by the county — Southern Health Partners Inc. and Quality Correctional Health Care Inc. — tried to cut costs and in the process provided substandard care.
Regardless of the merits of this particular lawsuit, and regardless of how it turns out, providing prisoners with adequate health care is a major expense, and there always will be a temptation to economize.
“We spend a million bucks a year on jail health care,” Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long said last week. “The whole (county) budget is $21 million to $22 million, and $1 million of it is inmate medical care.”
Long is right: That’s a lot of money, and a disproportionate percentage of the county’s overall budget. But providing adequate care for people in state custody, apart from being the humane thing to do, is also the law. The courts will demand it regardless of whether people think inmates are deserving.
Throughout the state, in counties where sheriffs are still allowed to keep “excess” funds left over from the feeding of jail inmates, sheriffs and county commissions are often at cross purposes. The sheriff has every incentive to increase jail capacity and occupancy and pocket the leftover food money. County commissions, however, are left with higher health costs.
If Morgan County voters approve a local amendment on the November ballot, the next Morgan County sheriff won’t get to keep excess food money. That will eliminate one perverse incentive that puts the sheriff and the commission at odds.
That, however, will be just a marginal improvement. Rising health care costs are a national problem and require a national solution.
Inmates will continue to require health care, and the health care they’re currently getting is already barely sufficient.
Alternatives to incarceration, such as community corrections, are one approach. Ultimately, however, voters and lawmakers will have to decide which crimes are worth locking people up. Eventually, something will have to give: fewer inmates or higher taxes.