Who covers the medical expenses of inmates?

Updated on February 5, 2021
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A simple fact is that prisoners need medical care. However, what’s not so simple is how inmates receive medical care, and who pays for it. Across the U.S., it’s generally regulated that correctional facilities must provide healthcare services to prisoners, but that doesn’t mean the service is free of charge.

But how exactly do you extract payment from prisoners who in most cases don’t have any money? It’s a rather complicated story, and in this article, we’re going to explain how inmates are charged for medical care.

Prisoners and Medical Copays

An estimated 80% of prisoners have no money or savings, yet are charged copays for medical services while in prison. Around 35 states currently require copayments and other fees in state prisons and county jails. Some states and local governments also require copayments for hospital stays and emergency treatment.

Copayments for medical services are charged to a prisoner’s commissary account in various amounts. For example, the prisoner might be charged $5 for a visit to the dentist. This may seem like a very small amount, but for most prisoners, their only income is either money sent by family, or for paid labour within the prison, but only in prisons that offer paid jobs to inmates.

How can you help a prisoner pay for medical expenses?

If a friend or relative in prison needs medical assistance, you can generally send small cash amounts by mail. First you should know what correctional facility the inmate is being held in using a public inmate roster, for example you can do a search in the NC area for inmates incarcerated in North Carolina.

Make sure you read the prison’s rules on sending items to prisoners, as every prison may have different rules regarding how much money a prisoner can receive in care packages.

What if a prisoner can’t afford medical copays?

Prison jobs do not pay minimum wages. The average daily wage paid to a prisoner is 86 cents in the very limited number of prisons that pay inmates for labor, and typically the labor is arranged with a third-party business, such as license plate manufacturing with inmate labor.

So for these inmates, a trip to the dentist will cost them approximately 1 week of pay out of their commissary account. Otherwise, the rest of the expenses are paid for by the facility. In fact, even if an inmate cannot afford the copay amount, the correctional facility must still ensure that the inmate receives proper medical attention.

In such cases where an inmate is unable to pay the copay, prisons will typically issue an outstanding balance against the prisoner’s account. The prisoner’s account will either be garnished until the debt is paid, or bills will be sent to the prisoner when they are released.

From PrisonLegalNews: “While corrections officials are prohibited from denying care when prisoners are unable to pay, they are allowed to seize up to half the funds in a prisoner’s trust account to cover outstanding co-pay costs, and negative balances can follow them even after their release. In Texas, where Estelle v. Gamble originated, Kyle Walker said she “can only afford to spend $30 to $40 every couple of weeks” to send to her imprisoned boyfriend.”

“Even to just put the money in his trust fund, there’s a fee for that transaction,” she said. “So for them to deduct half of the money for [medical] services he’s already received – it defeats the purpose of me even sending him money.”

Who pays the majority of medical expenses for inmates?

Because the prisoner copays on medical services are so low, it is of course the states and federal government that pay most of the costs of providing prisoners with medical treatment. Of course, this is mostly paid from tax revenue.

Overall, the prison industry costs taxpayers over $80 billion per year. Some might see this as a burden on society, 

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.