Oh Look, Another Cruel Way the Criminal Justice System Screws Over Poor People


Did you know that poor people who receive healthcare through Medicaid routinely get stripped of their coverage if they end up in jail—even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime? Neither did I, until this morning.

As CNN Money’s Lydia DePillis reported (emphasis mine):

Federal rules prohibit states from billing Medicaid for any inmate care unless the covered individual requires a hospital stay of at least 24 hours. They also cut off Social Security and Disability payments and some veterans’ benefits. Medicaid benefits are taken away as soon as a suspect has been booked into jail, whether they’ve been proven guilty or not. If they are convicted and incarcerated, Social Security and VA benefits disappear 30 and 60 days later, respectively.
Some states simply suspend benefits, allowing inmates to pick them back up as soon as they’re released. But 34 states still terminate enrollment either immediately or after the prisoner spends a certain period of time behind bars.

People are jailed for the simple fact that they are poor all the time. Up until recently, it was common practice to arrest and jail people who were not able to pay fines for minor infractions. Many more poor people end up stuck in pretrial detention because they are unable to make bail. We have a two-tier criminal justice system that overwhelmingly favors rich white people over poor black people.

Maintaining the ballooning U.S. prison population is also really expensive. Roughly 1.3 million people are locked up in state prisons—a sevenfold increase from the 1970s. The average cost of keeping one prisoner is $33,274, according to a 2015 Vera Institute of Justice study, and 70 percent of people in the U.S. prison population have not been convicted of a crime.

Prison healthcare makes up a large chunk of the costs of maintaining the prison system. A Pew report found that in 2015, departments of correction spent a staggering $8.1 billion—around a fifth of their overall expenditures—on prison healthcare. Ironically, locking poor people up and taking away their healthcare coverage is much more expensive than, say, investing in services that help get them back on their feet.

This story perfectly captures how free-market ideology joins hands with the prison industrial complex to punish people for the crime of being poor. Every story like this adds to the mountain of evidence that the U.S. prison system is out of control. It is a heinously cruel system that punishes the most vulnerable people in our society and works to keep poor, black, and brown people locked up. It should also serve as a reminder, timely as ever, that it doesn’t have to be this way.

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