Medical costs for state prisoners soaring, commissioner says

Published 7:16 pm Thursday, July 5, 2007

Treating cancer and AIDS is contributing to the escalating cost of providing medical care to state prisoners, says Mississippi Department of Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps.

Epps also cites longer prison sentences as a reason for the soaring costs.

MDOC spent about $40 million on inmate medical services for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The department has budgeted $44.5 million for inmate medical service this fiscal year, which began July 1, Epps said. In fiscal 2006, the state spent $37.2 million on inmate medical cost, Epps said.

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“Whether we like it or not, inmates are entitled to adequate medical care,” Epps said.

In addition to more cases of cancer and diabetes, the prison system has:

— 268 inmates with HIV and 55 of those with full-blown AIDS.

— 2,100 inmates with mental illnesses.

— 130 inmates who are disabled.

— 1,000 new inmates entering the correction system each year. There are more than 22,000 inmates in custody.

The average prison sentence is 10 years with inmates serving 8.74 of those years.

“I can remember when the average sentence was four years,” Epps said.

Epps said MDOC contracts with Wexford Health Sources Inc. of Pittsburgh to provide health care to inmates. The department also has a medical doctor on staff to coordinate inmate medical services.

In June 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of roughly 1,000 inmates in the super maximum security Unit 32 at the State Penitentiary at Parchman. The lawsuit’s allegations included that inmates in the unit were subjected to inadequate medical, mental health and dental care. A consent decree was entered in the case. The ACLU has complained that some parts of the consent decree weren’t being followed. In 2003, the ACLU filed a lawsuit and won improvements in Unit 32 for death row inmates.

Margaret Winter, a lawyer for the ACLU National Prison Project, has said Epps has been cooperative in trying to make conditions better for inmates, but problems still exist.