Privatized prison healthcare in the US—profiteering at the expense of inmate health

Profiting from pain—the harsh reality of privatized prison healthcare in America.

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In the vast, profit-driven expanse of the U.S. prison system, the healthcare of inmates, a critical yet often overlooked aspect, has fallen into the hands of a few large private companies. Dominated by private equity-owned firms like Wellpath and YesCare (formerly Corizon Health), this multibillion-dollar industry raises profound ethical questions about the commodification of health in correctional facilities.

Contracts between these private healthcare providers and government entities often prioritize budgetary considerations over the quality of care, with legal indemnifications that insulate officials from the repercussions of substandard services. This setup has led to a cycle where concerns of patients and workers are routinely sidelined in favor of cost-cutting measures.

The influence of private equity in prison healthcare stems from a history of privatization that began in the 1970s. By 2009, approximately 40% of correctional health expenditures were channeled to private companies. This shift was fueled by the notion that outsourcing healthcare would be an attractive cost-saving measure for states grappling with budget constraints.

However, this privatization has serious implications for inmate healthcare. Capitated payment models, where providers are paid a fixed amount per inmate regardless of the actual care provided, incentivize minimizing expenses, often at the cost of adequate healthcare provision. This has led to chronic under-staffing, as evidenced in a Washington facility operated by Correct Care Solutions (now part of Wellpath), where patient requests went unanswered and medication errors were rampant.

The zine “From Dawn ‘Til Dusk,” published by the Private Equity Stakeholder Project (PESP), reveals the granular, everyday ways private equity infiltrates many aspects of prison life, from telecommunications to food services. This publication, meant as an educational and organizing tool, draws from extensive research to highlight the profound impact of private equity on the prison industry.

Private equity firms, known for their aggressive cost-cutting tactics and focus on high returns, have near-monopolized markets like prison telecommunications and healthcare. These firms, often backed by substantial capital, have consolidated their hold, creating monopolies or duopolies in various service areas within the prison system.In the realm of prison healthcare, companies like Wellpath and YesCare, owned by private equity firms H.I.G. Capital and Perigrove Capital respectively, have faced numerous lawsuits and investigations for providing inadequate care. Practices like under-staffing medical units and assigning tasks to workers beyond their training are commonplace, prioritizing cost savings over patient welfare.

Moreover, these companies wield considerable political influence. For instance, Corizon Health, during its contract in Alameda County, made significant political donations to the county sheriff, coinciding with contract renewals without a bidding process. This intersection of corporate contributions and contract decisions raises concerns about the influence of money in maintaining these profitable yet potentially harmful arrangements.

While the privatized model of prison healthcare continues to be critiqued for its emphasis on profits over patient care, some regions in the U.S. are opting for alternatives. Models involving local health agencies, community-based health centers, or university-based health programs are being explored as more publicly-oriented and ethically sound approaches to healthcare in correctional settings.

The issue of privatized prison healthcare is emblematic of a larger societal problem: the prioritization of profit over essential human needs. In the case of the U.S. prison system, this has meant the commodification of healthcare, with private equity firms profiting from the captive market of incarcerated individuals. As awareness grows and criticism mounts, the call for reform and a shift towards more humane and ethical models of care becomes increasingly urgent.

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Alexis Sterling is a seasoned War and Human Rights Reporter with a passion for reporting the truth in some of the world's most tumultuous regions. With a background in journalism and a keen interest in international affairs, Alexis's reporting is grounded in a commitment to human rights and a deep understanding of the complexities of global conflicts. Her work seeks to give voice to the voiceless and bring to light the human stories behind the headlines. Alexis is dedicated to responsible and engaged journalism, constantly striving to inform and educate the public on critical issues of war and human rights across the globe.

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