Words by Kelila Ritchie
Racism in healthcare is alive and kicking and being delivered on a silver platter by the highest paid doctor. The Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble declared that prison staff’s “deliberate indifference” to crucial medical needs of people who are incarcerated constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. Jacksonville’s John E. Goode Pre-Trial Detention Center (aka the jail) has been under a microscope recently for their violations of the Eighth Amendment which protects individuals against cruel and unusual punishment.
“Americans living in rural areas are more likely to die from unintentional injuries, heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease than their urban counterparts,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
So, let’s combine the already huge lack of accessibility to healthcare with incarceration. Mass incarceration.
DISPARITIES IN INCARCERATION RATES
Currently, America is the leading country in incarceration rates. To dig a little deeper, one in every 81 black adults are currently incarcerated in a state prison. From 1980-2001 there was a 170% increase in arrests for nonviolent drug offenses. This rapid increase came as a result of President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs policy that was later established by President Ronald Reagan. It is of utmost importance to note that even though drug usage and drug transactions were similar across races and ethnicities, Black people and other people of color were and are more likely to be detained or incarcerated than white people.
The tactics used during the height of the War on Drugs heavily stuck within the communities impacted most. There is an overwhelming lack of trust within these communities; black communities, in particular, do not feel safe around law enforcement. According to PBS, ⅔ of Black Americans do not trust police to treat them fairly. In the same breath, Black communities are often overpoliced and over profiled which often results in jail or fatalities. In this instance, the two are synonymous. The war on drugs has had a more than heavy lasting influence that has plagued America for decades and also further perpetuates the cycle of mass incarceration.
Michael Sampson, executive director of the Jacksonville Community Action Committee, recognizes the connection between mass incarceration and the statistics we’re seeing today. “If you take away the criminalization of marijuana as a crime, it gives officers less context to stop someone, pull them over, search their vehicle. They want to have all the tools at their disposal to arrest when they want to arrest,” he said. “So I think that law and order culture has created a culture of mass incarceration and over-incarceration that leads to dead inmates. People are dying because they’re not getting the right services they need and deserve.”
State-sanctioned violence is nothing new to Black people and people of color in America, but the war on drugs has desensitized the public to police brutality, abuse and an overwhelming misuse of power within the justice system and its processes.
HEALTHCARE IN PRISONS
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, mass incarceration has shortened the United States overall life expectancy by five years. Granted, health issues can and sometimes do present themselves prior to arrest, but these illnesses can become drastically worse due to the lack of care in jails and prisons. Let’s paint the picture together. If you’re in a room full of sick adults and you enter in good health, chances are you are going to get sick. These chances multiply greatly when the other sick adults are not receiving the care they need and deserve. So you’re stuck in this loop of sick people constantly getting each other sick. For instance, COVID-19 severely impacted people serving time in state prisons and county jails. Jacksonville’s jail, in particular, suffered greatly at the height of the pandemic. At its height, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office reported 100 COVID-19 cases in Duval County correctional facilities and thousands more inmates had to be placed in quarantine as the agency worked to get the outbreak under control.
Jails became a COVID hotspot met with no remedies or treatments or even empathy. Many people died as a result of bodies piling on top of each other with little to no medical attention or care. People who are incarcerated rely heavily on correctional officers and the justice system as a whole while they are serving time. They don’t have the luxury of going to the pharmacy to pick up their medicine, and they don’t have the luxury to take themselves to the hospital whenever they deem necessary. They don’t even have the luxury of medication or treatment they may have already had prior to arrest. Last month, 62-year-old Rebecca Faircloth died in the Jacksonville jail after experiencing a medical emergency — despite her husband writing a letter to the prosecuting attorney that highlighted his wife’s lupus, as well as an infection stemming from the disease. Faircloth also suffered from sleep apnea that required her to sleep with a breathing machine at home, but she was denied the breathing machine during her time spent incarcerated as well. Clearly, there is a blatant disconnect between incarcerated persons and healthcare professionals.
“There needs to be a switch back to outsourcing medical service. When medical services were run by public entities or even partnerships like UF Health, when it was the Jacksonville Department of Health there weren’t that many issues with bad healthcare,” Sampson said. “Why? Because you have public servants and staff who aren’t there to turn up a profit but to simply provide care.”
Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters announced he would no longer work with Armor Correctional Health, and JSO has entered a $110 million contract with NaphCare Correctional Health. Both entities are privately owned. Both companies have a history relating to mistreatment of those incarcerated. Reports from News4Jax and The Tributary showed Armor Correctional Health had not reported past criminal convictions against their company, something that is required by federal law. In the last year — prior to privatizing healthcare — there were a total of two deaths in the jail. Deaths at the Jacksonville jail have tripled since privatizing healthcare, according to “The Tributary.” Dexter Barry, 54, spent a total of two days in John E. Goode Jail. During these two days, he was not given his anti-rejection medication needed for his heart transplant and died after being released. Lina Odom, 28, died after not receiving medical attention following extreme alcohol withdrawal symptoms. The National Commission on Correctional Health wrote a report criticizing the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office timeliness on the reviews of deaths in the jail or, rather, the lack thereof. Further, the agency revealed delays in medications and medical support to those incarcerated. In one case, the Sheriff’s Office didn’t review an inmate’s psychological records after an inmate’s suicide.
There is an overwhelming need for healthcare reform in prisons and jails. How do we achieve this though? How do we make people in positions of power care about those who have no power? How do we humanize elected officials? These are all questions we have been asking as a community for decades. People are dying and they will continue to die unless something is done to prevent this.
We leaders who believe healthcare is a right, not a privilege. It shouldn’t be something that citizens that are incarcerated or even those not incarcerated should have to fight tooth and nail to get medical care. But how, as a society, do we get to a point where we all agree that people are worthy of a good or even just a comfortable life?
This is your call to action Jacksonville. We have to be the voice for the voiceless. Those whose voices are muffled and drowned out by a system that deems them less than human. A system that dares you to go against them. A system that has proven not to be trustworthy, fair or unbiased. One immediate way to get involved is to learn more about the Jacksonville Community Action Committee by visiting their website at jaxtakesaction.org. The grassroots organization is dedicated to fighting for justice and liberation right in our backyard, and they are consistent which is a crucial aspect to fighting for justice.