Health Care for Convicts

April 07, 1995

Denying prison inmates amenities such as television, exercise equipment and any books except the Bible has become a popular method of ensuring that these criminals are severely punished. Some citizens also would like to see them denied medical care.

But as demonstrated by the recent case of an inmate in Carroll County infected with tuberculosis who may have spread it to others, ignoring an inmate's health can have a direct and devastating effect on all of us.

The unnamed inmate -- Maryland medical confidentiality laws prevent the authorities from identifying him -- was jailed for 10 days before he was released on home detention. While incarcerated, the man was routinely screened for tuberculosis. After posting a bond and leaving the detention center, health officials discovered he had an active case of tuberculosis.

Instead of abiding by the terms of his home detention, the man apparently wandered in the community for several weeks spreading this extremely contagious disease. Obviously, this man should not have been on the streets. Yet had he been confined to the detention center, he still could have infected other inmates, jail guards, visiting family members or others who came into contact with him.

Realizing the potential danger at hand, the county health department began to track down and test people who have may been exposed to him. Health workers identified at least 200 people who had contact with the man. To date, 12 of them have tested positive, meaning they developed antigens after being exposed to live tuberculosis. None of them has developed active tuberculosis so far, but they will have to be monitored for some time.

As money for all manner of government programs is being cut back, medical care for inmates makes a tempting target. Popular sentiment would support such a cut. This incident shows clearly that instead of punishing the inmate, the greatest damage from less medical care for inmates might be inflicted on the community at large.

If the detention center's tuberculosis screening test had been eliminated for budgetary reasons, Carroll County might now be facing an epidemic. At least the extent of the infection is known and its spread has been contained.

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