Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Prison Health Care

Lynne Stewart, the "political prisoner" described in an earlier post, is ill. She has metastatic breast cancer, and while I'm not much of a doctor, I don't think the prognosis for that is very good. This really is too bad, because while I don't support her legal case, I respect her as a human being and don't wish that on anybody.

Socialist Action (SA) has an article on her case here, accompanied by a letter from Ms. Stewart herself. The facts, as I understand them from the article (it's a bit unclear), is that Ms. Stewart was operated on for breast cancer in New York (Sloan-Kettering) prior to going to prison. She was given a clean bill of health at that time. However, last October it was discovered (in prison) that the cancer has returned, and has now spread to both lungs, and possibly elsewhere.

Jeff Mackler, author of the SA article, argues that health care in prison is generally unsatisfactory. Further, Carswell prison (where Ms. Stewart is incarcerated) has a compassionate release policy that in principle would allow her to return to Sloan-Kettering for continued treatment. According to Mackler, "...officials insist that Lynne’s status as a well-known personality insures that she will receive adequate treatment, if not 'preferential treatment,' in prison."

Mackler condemns the prison for hypocrisy for giving Ms. Stewart special treatment because she is well known, but at the same time insists on special treatment for her by way of release to Sloan-Kettering. This argument doesn't make much sense--either she's due special treatment or not. The hypocrisy charge, if any, should be leveled against her defense committee--how many other prisoners have a defense committee?

Now I suspect that Mr. Mackler is correct in thinking that healthcare in prison is unsatisfactory. And I'm rather on his side there. Prisoners are wards of the state, and taxpayers have a moral obligation to tend to them properly. I'm much more sympathetic to the health needs of prisoners than I am to, say, the working poor. The latter are free people who can and should be expected to take major responsibility for themselves.

Indeed, on criminal justice issues I'm probably a Liberal. Some years ago heard a Bloggingheads dialogue with Mark Kleiman (I can't find the episode) that changed my thinking on these issues. Mr. Kleiman proposes a criminal justice system that seems to protect society, save money, and be compassionate all at the same time. On everything else I disagree with him--he's a Left-wing Democrat and I'm a Tea Party Republican--but here we're of one mind.

Ms. Stewart, in her letter, acquits herself well. She praises her "young woman oncologist." She is happy that a treatment plan is finally in the works, though she gently complains that it has taken a very long time. While she is tired of being escorted to doctor's visits in leg irons and chains, she is grateful for her guards' kindness. In a word, Ms. Stewart is much more generous in spirit than Mr. Mackler is. Not only is this the honorable thing to do, but it will earn her better treatment in the long run than if she is loudly critical of everything (as, e.g., Mumia abu-Jamal). Her defense committee may actually not be serving her very well.

While I do not support Ms. Stewart's legal case, and I do not consider her a "political prisoner," I do think everybody would be better served if she could be held in a less restrictive environment. It would save money and it would be gentler on her.

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