Over the past 14 years I have been either incarcerated, on parole, or under community supervision. In 2019, just prior to COVID-19 pandemic, I transitioned back into the community, where I struggled with finding a job, acclimating to “real life,” and addressing my mental and physical health. Although given an overall clean bill of health, I learned that my egg quality was severely deteriorated, and I could never carry a baby to term.
Studies show that vitamin D deficiency, a common occurrence among incarcerated people who have irregular access to sunlight, causes fertility issues and depression among women. I always thought that I would have a chance to be a mother. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case. I consider myself lucky that this is the only health problem I bear from my time in prison. Some people are left with life-altering complications and others did not even survive.
Something as minor as a cavity might be ignored by the state until the tooth is so rotten it must be completely extracted. A nagging headache might be brushed off until the person collapses and receives a more serious diagnosis. These examples of routine negligence not only create additional and cruel punishments for people inside, but they are also far more expensive to treat, creating unnecessary costs to state taxpayers.
For the residents of Connecticut, the costs include not only the direct costs of medical care, but also the innumerable secondary expenses of lawsuits, staffing shortages and ballooning budget costs. Given these costs, can Connecticut afford to allow the Department of Corrections to continue to self-regulate and deprive incarcerated individuals of healthcare?
Self-regulation means that there is no one who serves as a watchdog for the needs of patients under the state’s care. Some people like to forget that justice-impacted people are human beings. But we are — I am. We deserve routine wellness visits, dental care, and reproductive healthcare. We deserve access to preventive medicine and proactive care during our incarceration. Too often, the toll on the bodies of people in prison is enormous under the current state system. Rather than the necessary surgical measures like a root canal, a tooth that could be saved is extracted. Instead of managing diabetes through regular care, diabetics are left to make the best food choices in a starch- and sugar-influenced diet where rice and cake are daily staples. The current self-regulated state system repeatedly fails incarcerated men and women both during their incarceration and after their release.
These compounded failures create an avoidable burden on state resources such as subsidized healthcare programs like HUSKY. Senate Bill 448, if passed, can begin to address the health disparities that currently face those incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and their loved ones, and the economic strain on the citizens of Connecticut.
The bill, currently before the legislature, would address the delivery of health care and mental health care services to inmates of correctional institutions. The legislation would also address the inadequate staffing that currently plagues the Department of Corrections for mental, dental, and physical health, while providing an oversight committee comprised of lawmakers, community organizations, formerly incarcerated persons and others that will provide a checks and balance system.
According to an October 2021 trends report from the Office of Policy and Management, correctional admissions have gone down, and releases have gone up. Although it is a promising start to addressing the cycle of mass incarceration, it begs the question: What is the mental and physical status of individuals who are currently incarcerated or released back to the community? According to the State of Connecticut, in 2021, 233 women were released into the community. Many of these women faced multiple barriers upon their return home, but among the biggest barriers was health care. Upon release, returning citizens do not often have reliable access to laptops or phones, tools necessary to navigate the insurance portals such as HUSKY. Obtaining medical records from their period of incarceration is near impossible, forcing recently released men and women to start their medical history from scratch, wasting time and money on the visits they need to establish care. Once this is accomplished, formerly incarcerated men and women quickly max out their medical and dental benefits due to the sub-par care inside which leads to compounding medical bills that create an unnecessary financial burden on the individual and their families.
The Department of Corrections has been struggling for years to stop losing money from the cost of inmate healthcare services. Since the July 2018 transition from UCONN Health to the self-management of DOC, the healthcare budget has run a deficit. The budget needed a $20 million startup after UCONN left. Unfortunately that money seems not to be spent on the necessary healthcare needs of those that are incarcerated. Shortages in staffing, subpar care, and blatant negligence resulted in lawsuits filed by those who are incarcerated or their families, which is costing the state millions to settle.
Connecticut can no longer fiscally afford to allow DOC to self-regulate its healthcare; neither can the thousands of inmates who are currently incarcerated and those who were formerly incarcerated. I am asking for everyone to help pass Bill 448 reforming the delivery of health care and mental health care services to inmates at correctional institutions. It will save lives and save money.
Marisol Garcia is a senior at Trinity College majoring in Public Policy and Law.