Thursday, December 11, 2008

COMMENTARY: Counterproductive punishment?

By Matt Henderson

Drug addictions are physical dependencies and those affected have very high relapse rates. Addicts in a state of withdrawal are not themselves and will sometimes lash out in antisocial or criminal behavior either in generalized frustration or in trying to find money to support their habit.

With this in mind, consider that when a person is incarcerated in the United States, they immediately lose their eligibility for federal Medical Assistance (Also called M.A. or Medicaid).

Rick Kastner, the Executive Director of the Lancaster County Drug & Alcohol Commission says that not only are the medical services offered in prison much less comprehensive, but when an individual is finally released from prison, they have to re-apply for benefits.

Many certainly suffer in prison with minimal care and upon discharge, it can take as long as six weeks to get an M.A. card, assuming they are able to produce the necessary identification documents, according to Kastner.

That window is a critical time - it's like 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. For many, it's all too easy to fall back in to old patterns.

"It would be much better if that coverage continues while a person is in County Prison... at least temporarily... they shouldn't lose it the day they go into prison," said Kastner.

The County Commissioners don't like the current system either, but for a different reason. Under the current system, the county must pick up the tab (for healthcare costs in general) as soon as a person is placed in jail.

In July, the Commissioners approved a resolution expressing support for a congressional bill that would extend federal benefits for prison inmates until they are actually convicted. According to available information, that bill (H.R. 5698 - the "Restoring the Partnership for County Health Care Costs Act of 2008") has not made it out of committee and onto the House floor for a vote.

One view has it that taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize anything more than the bare necessities when it comes to healthcare for convicted criminals. But is this really what's best for society? Relapse and recidivism rates place heavy burdens on the overcrowded prison, the overworked Drug & Alcohol Commission, the overstretched city and county budgets, and the overtaxed taxpayer. Perhaps it's time for us to look at rehabilitation of inmates as an investment in the health of our community.

[Editor's note: Last week the commissioners were told that 70% of prisoners are addicts. So not only would it be helpful to provide them with their regular prescriptions, but is this not an ideal opportunity to start them on the path to recovery through a methadone or Suboxone program? Then release for prison would be an opportunity to find work and rebuild family ties, rather than the slippery slope to ongoing addiction, possible over dosing, and crime.]