States’ Efforts To Privatize Prison Health Care Create ‘Inhumane’ Conditions

A new report by the Kaiser Family Foundation finds that 20 state prison systems have delegated all or part of their health care operations to private companies, leading to serious neglect and in some cases abuse in an effort to cut costs.

Maryland, Arizona, New Mexico, and Illinois are just a few of the states arguing that outsourcing prison health care is more cost effective than employing state workers, partly because private companies free the state from providing benefits and pensions to government employees. But the quality of care under these corporations frequently has been lacking.

In one example, a March report examined Idaho’s “inhumane” privatized prison health care system run by Corizon, one of the largest vendors in the U.S.:

Terminal and long-term inmates sometimes went unfed, nursing mistakes or failure likely resulted in some deaths, and one inmate wasn’t told for seven months that he likely had cancer. […] Inmates who were terminal or required long-term care and who were unable to move on their own were sometimes left in soiled linens, given inadequate pain medication and went periods without food and water.

Also in March, Arizona inmates sued over abysmal conditions, which in one case led to the death of a prisoner whose lung cancer spread through his body after repeated requests for treatment went ignored. The lawsuit claims prison medical staff told the inmate to drink energy shakes to cure his symptoms. According to the lawsuit, “Critically ill prisoners have begged prison officials for medical treatment…only to be told to ‘be patient,’ that ‘it’s all in your head,’ or that they should ‘pray’ to be cured.”


The new Kaiser report notes that state-run prison health care is not pristine either. For the past six years, California’s prison health care has been supervised by a federal court after a judge found that the state failed to provide inmates with adequate medical treatment. In May, a federal judge denied California department of corrections the right to resume control, stating that the department must first demonstrate its ability to provide adequate medical treatment.

But privatizing health care has hardly proven to be the solution. On a technical level, coordination and communication breakdowns can occur more easily when the state manages the prisons and a separate firm handles health care. And, as Kerry Korpi of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said, “Private correctional health care companies have a track record of cost cutting that put both inmates and staff at risk. These companies’ goal is profit, not public safety.”