Editorial: For-profit prison infirmaries require reform

Editorial: For-profit prison infirmaries require reform

The Pitt News Editorial Board

January 12, 2015

Clarence Jewett Jr.’s death in the Allegheny County Jail last December marked the seventh inmate death of 2014 at the county jail. The circumstances surrounding his death are still unclear. 

Jewett was taken into custody on the charge of “disorderly conduct” because of his profane language. However, a series of court cases in 2009 ruled that obscene language was comprised of sexual content, not profanity. Therefore, generally, the city of Pittsburgh is not supposed to arrest citizens for using profanity. Should Jewett have been arrested, then, especially considering that he had schizophrenia? Why was he in jail and not at a medical center? Or, why was the medical treatment he received so inadequate?

Jewitt had a “perforated bowel” that infection may have caused, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Such gastrointestinal perforations are considered a medical emergency, but surgeries to correct it have a high success rate.

Corizon Health, a private for-profit company, has recently contracted the Allegheny County Jail. Since Corizon took over the infirmary in September 2013, the jail has seen mortality rates two times higher than the norm. To integrate perspective, in 2011, 81 percent of jails reported 0 deaths, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

Amie Downs, director of Allegheny County’s CommunicationsDivision, told The Pitt News that the Allegheny County Jail has created “additional monitoring positions,” which are “currently being filled,” in an effort to improve medical conditions for inmates.

Still, Jewett’s death echoes a larger trend of privatization, in which proper health care isn’t a human right but an uncommon occurrence.

The heart of this privatization is a “prison culture.” Since 1998, when there were only five private prisons in the country, corporate buy-outs of government-owned facilities have become the norm. In 2008, 100 private prisons were recorded.

In addition, the U.S. is responsible for roughly 25 percent of all the world’s inmates, although our country only contains about five percent of the world’s population, according to ProPublica

To put this statistic into perspective, there are about 762 prisoners per 100,000 citizens in the U.S. In the U.K., there are only 152 per 100,000. This doesn’t add up, especially considering that crime rates have lowered while incarceration rates have risen.

Why so many prisoners? It’s all about profit. 

There is an incentive to keep individuals behind bars, and it’s attached to a dollar sign. Profits attached to private prisons rose 500 percent in the last 20 years, according to Mother Jones, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.

The Corrections Corporation of America, the largest private prison owner in America, receives a large sum of these profits. In 2011, this corporation garnered about $1.7 billion total revenue from 48 states. 

This sum is accomplished by keeping a high occupancy and, thus, obtaining a large “work force.” Prisoners produce 100 percent of all military helmets, ID tags, canteens and bullet-proof vests. In addition, since most facilities have policies mandating that their occupancy be at least 90 percent full, there is often an overcrowding problem.

This leads us back to the question of health standards in private infirmaries. 

The East Mississippi Correctional Facility is an extreme example of impoverished inmates. A report by Terry A. Kupers notes that there was one psychiatrist for more than 844 patients requiring medication. The American Psychiatric Association suggests no more than 150 patients per doctor.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, in regard to the Allegheny County Jail, has called for some form of sufficient monitoring of the impound to make sure that inmates are treated fairly and the conditions are acceptable. Under the ACLU’s plan, understaffing is merit for fining Corizon.  In addition, a “high-level, independent monitor” should periodically report any findings in the medical center. Luckily, it seems the jail has been responding proactively.

If Allegheny County takes the proper steps, it could be a break in the cycle of corporate cruelty.


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