Georgia Prisons: Department of Collections?|
Georgia Online News Service
ATLANTA Time in prison is supposed to reform inmates. Tacking on a bill for certain medications or room and board, and the reform might go further. So goes the thinking behind some draft laws winding through the Capitol this session.
House Bill 464 proposes charging state prisoners a copay on every prescription from the prison dispensary that treats a passing illness, such as a cold. The bill excludes drugs for chronic conditions or pregnancy.
"It's estimated that the cost of medication for our inmates this year will be in excess of $25 million. This is a way that they can pay a reasonable amount toward their healthcare," bill author Rep. Barbara Massey Reece (D-Menlo) told a House State Institutions and Property Committee hearing.
She expects the fee would be $5 per prescription, though that's ultimately up to the people in charge at each institution. Any inmate with less than $10 in their account wouldn't be charged.
She has the support of the Department of Corrections.
It won't do much for the prison budget, but it may teach a "civics lesson," according to Alan Adams, division director for health services at the department.
"The intent is for the inmates to shoulder some of the responsibility for their own healthcare, to make informed and adult decisions about when to access healthcare and when not to," Adams testified to the committee, which approved the bill.
Most cold medicines and the like are prescribed after a prisoner initiates a sick call and is taken to the prison doctor. That call is already subject to a $5 copay.
"This will further discourage a malingerer or an inmate without a real problem from going to medical," Adams said.
The copay could net the Department of Corrections some $1.8 million a year, according to their own calculations.
"We do not expect this to become a significant revenue generator," Adams testified. It's meant to encourage responsibility, he added.
But for the Southern Center for Human Rights, charging inmates for medications is irresponsible. It is especially unhappy with a different bill that would attempt to charge prisoners for all their medical treatment and their room and board.
It's a bad principle, says Sara Totonchi, SCHR's public policy director.
"When people in prison know they will be charged for the medical care they receive, many of them, knowing their families don't have the money, will choose to forego medical treatment," she says.
"In close, confined spaces such as we have in our prisons, serious illnesses, serious diseases can spread quickly. Things like MRSA [drug-resistant] staph infections, hepatitis even," she adds.
The more radical bill is House Bill 295, which would impound prisoners' property on the outside to pay their medical bills.
It would also charge a $40 per diem for a prison stay $14,600 per year. The state's average cost per prisoner per day was $46.27 as of March 2008.
Right now, the bill language excludes prisoners who are ruled unable to pay by a judge.
Totonchi counters that there's not enough "uniformity or consistency" in sentencing across the state to protect prisoners. She thinks people already in a tough place could walk out of jail in debt, increasing the chances that they'll walk right back in.
HB 295 author Rep. Roger Lane (R-Darien) says creating indebted prisoners is not his intention.
"This is more designed for those who have sufficient assets and income that they can afford to repay the state for the cost of incarceration," which would include well-off white-collar criminals, he said. Lane likes the additional prospect of a civics lesson, too.
But he expects the bill will sit in committee until next session until the language is made more precise.
"We're going to look at putting some parameters, thresholds in there.
We're not trying to penalize the families of folks who are just trying to get by day to day," Lane says.
Maggie Lee specializes in quality of life topics, Atlanta's international communities and general reporting. She covers Georgia economic development and the Chinese community as a stringer for China Daily and chronicles life in Georgia's most diverse county for the DeKalb Champion. [full bio]