State Of The Art Care For Texas Prisoners, At Your Expense
Behind a barbed-wire fence is the Estelle Unit in Huntsville. Unlike any prison you've ever imagined, it's an all-encompassing medical facility run by the University of Texas Medical Branch. They provide state-of-the-art care to all inmates in the Texas Department of Correction with an average of 3 million patient encounters a year.
Chief Executive Physician Owen Murray says, "That's all cumbersome. That's dieticians, nurses, mental health, dental, medical, passing meds, TB tests. The gammet of health care services, we provide for this offender population."
The cost of care for an inmate in the general population is $7.66/day, but when inmates reach the age of 55, that figure skyrockets to about $22/day. With nearly 10,000 of those older inmates in Texas prisons, it adds up to nearly 80 million dollars each year. According to UTMB, the older population is the fastest growing segment in the prison system, outpacing their younger counterparts at a rate of three to one.
"I think when you look at it, it's probably longer prison sentences. People are staying in prison longer, and therefore, they're growing old in prison. Also, we have an influx of older patients coming in, 60, 65, coming into the system for crimes they've committed when they were that age," says Murray.
The most feeble inmates wind up in a 60-bed geriatric unit. 74 year old Perry Waddle spends his days listening to southern gospel music and reading his Bible. He was convicted of robbery in 1967 and was released on parole in 1997. In 2000, he was busted for selling and possessing cocaine. At 68 years old, he was sent back to prison.
"Since I've been back, I've lost this eye here. I've got Parkinsons' disease no. I've got nitro. I've also got lung trouble," says Waddle.
83 year old Robert Bell is serving a life sentence for a 1979 aggravated rape. He's been in this facility for the last 8 years.
"I had three heart attacks, and was going into the second one when I got the Parkinson's disease. The top part of my heart is dead. They just put a pace maker in me," says Bell.
For most East Texans that procedure would cost about thirty thousand dollars, assuming there were no complications. With 1 in 4 texans living without insurance, and the average household income in East Texas at thirty-five thousand dollars a year, it's a procedure that would be out of reach for so many.
The high quality of care in prisons may explain a newly released report which says prisoners are living longer than their free world counterparts. Inmates in state prisons are dying at a rate of about 250 out of one-hundred thousand. Compare that to the overall population age 15-64 which is dying at a rate of 308 out of one-hundred thousand.
"We take patients in who didn't have a great deal of healthcare when they were out in the streets. They come in with us. They're in a controlled setting. We make sure they take their meds. We diagnose their chronic illnesses. We give them a diet. We're a facility of abstinence so we make sure that they don't have access to their high risk behavior; unprotected sex, alcohol, drugs," says Murray.
With the older population growing rapidly, and prisoners living longer, UTMB says it is hoping lawmakers will consider a bill to build more, large geriatric facilities like the Estelle Unit. Something they say they desperately need, but that would cost more millions in taxpayer dollars.
A bill was filed during the last two legislatures relating to in-prison geriatric communities. It was left in committee both sessions, but could be reexamined this time around.
Tomorrow night on KLTV 7 News at 10, we'll examine the situation that has been created where those in prison have a right to health care that law abiding citizens do not.