Editorial: Warning of poor prison health care deserves closer look

SHARE Editorial: Warning of poor prison health care deserves closer look

If an important study involving the well-being of real people falls short, get it right, don’t ignore it.

Even if the real people in question barely register on society’s pity meter.


Unfortunately, the Illinois Department of Corrections has failed to do just that. The department has reacted far too coolly to a report released last month that concluded medical care in state prisons suffers from treatment delays, irregular follow-up care, disorganized record keeping and other problems.

This stuff is too important to ignore. The 405-page study suggests that “blatant disregard” for health complaints by one prisoner contributed to the inmate’s death of cancer behind bars at age 48. It found “significant lapses in care” in an “unacceptably high” 60 percent of the cases in which prisoners died behind bars in 2013 and the first half of 2014, not counting those who died of violent causes.

The report also raised doubts about the contracting out of health care services to a private company that is paid a per-prisoner fee, which could provide an incentive to cut costs on care, an allegation the private company has denied.

While not a comprehensive look at every prison, researchers visited correctional facilities over several months and dug through thousands of prison records. Their conclusion that substandard care may have shortened inmates’ lives is too troubling to leave gathering dust on a shelf somewhere.

The study grew out a federal class-action lawsuit brought in 2010 by a diabetic inmate who said IDOC displays “deliberate indifference” toward inmates’ medical care. The suit now involves the American Civil Liberties Union and the state, which shared the costs of the report and agreed which prisons would be studied and which experts would be involved.

You’d think the report would be at least a serious basis for negotiations, with all sides taking its conclusions to heart and pushing forward to ensure that the state prison health care system is adequate.

While agreeing with some of the report’s recommendations, IDOC initially dismissed it by saying it “uses a broad brush to paint an incomplete picture of the comprehensive medical system in place.” Since then, DOC has released no other statements.

We know that prison inmates, especially those convicted of heinous crimes, aren’t exactly at the top of society’s list of compassion priorities. We get that inmates can’t expect lavish health care from citizens who, unlike prisoners, aren’t guaranteed health care and may be able to afford only basic health care themselves.

But the people behind bars don’t have a choice in their medical services. They can’t say they’ve lost confidence and go to someone else across the street.

And none of them were sentenced to die in prison for lack of adequate care.

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