By October 20, 2017 No Comments

I used to hear people say how inmates have it made in prison, how they get clean clothes, three hots and a cot. Not to mention free medical and dental. When I came to prison, though, I learned it was a lot different than I’d heard while I was free. We do get clean clothes- well, at least they are cleaned every day. Most every set of clothes I get is badly stained up and usually in such bad repair that they don’t fit or cover yout whole body. And we do get three meals a day, except they sure aren’t hot. Or at least not in the winter when you’d like them to be. It seems the TDCJ miraculously pulls off their hottest meals around mid-July to mid-September. Go figure. And I do have a place to sleep, but I assure you the “cot” would be far more comfortable than the steel platform and mattress we get. The mat is about two feet wide and it’s so hard it feels like sleeping on a pile of dirty clothes. But I’ve slept on worse, so I can’t complain about that.

The fact is, nothing is free in prison, and especially not our medical and dental. I can tell you, I never expected I would be charge& for seeing the doctor when I came to prison. Though I really should say my FAMILY is being charged, since I don’t have a penny to my name, and any money I get is coming from them anyway.
A few years ago, with the 2015 legislature, Texas changed its laws, and enabled the TDCJ to charge a “copay fee” of $100.00 per year for almost all medical visits, regardless of whether or not the inmate had money in his account in the first place. At the time the law was passed, the highest copay of any other state in the U.S. was $7.00. Texas was charging $3.00. For you math wizzes out there, that’s a 3,333% increase, year over year, in medical charges. And even if you might think $100 is not all that bad, I’d ask you to remember that TDCJ inmates are the ONLY inmates in all 50 states that get absolutely no wages, ever, for any work they do, even though they are required by law to have a “job”.
If you, have to visit the doctor, the TDCJ will automatically deduct $100 from your ITF account. If you don’t have $100, in there to start with, they take 50% of every deposit that Aunt Annie or Sister Sallie puts in there, until it is paid in full. If you are chronically indigent, then those $100 copays just keep stacking up until you might owe hundreds of dollars to the. TDCJ by the time you get out of the pen. I am one of those inmates. I personally cannot afford to pay this, and neither can my family. Many inmates I’ve met in here over the years are in the same boat as I am. The TDCJ is getting free labor out of us, yet they insist on taking our families’ money; How can it be fair, or even legal, for that matter? They’re making a fortune on commissary and inmate-run factories, then they turn around and fleece the taxpayers for their budget, and double-tax my family by charging them $100 if I happen to get sick. That’s crazy.
In August of 2016, I broke out with some sort of skin rash. I was red and splotchy all over my chest, and it spread all the way down to my thighs. I didn’t know if it was a heat-related rash. I though it might have been something contagious, because at the time, there was a lot of it going around on the unit. All I knew was that I was itching like crazy, and it being the hottest part of the year and no air conditioning, I was miserable and it was getting worse and worse. I couldn’t afford to pay the copay to see the M.D., so I started trying to cure it myself. I was desperately trying all these home remedies, and believe you me, EVERY single prisoner in here has a home remedy for just about everything. I even ended up trying a poultice made with baby powder and pickle juice! But I knew If I gave in and went to the infirmary, my wife, who was already struggling to pay the bills and keep our kids fed and clothed, would be burdene.d by another bill. I couldn’t do that to her. I’d already hurt my family enough by coming to prison, and I didn’t want to add to it.
Despite my resolution, I suffered another week of pure misery, and when I couldn’t bear it any more, I tried showing my rash to the sergeant on duty that day. I told him that I didn’t know if maybe it was contagious or an allergic reaction to something. I was hoping he would consider it an emergency and send me to the infirmary as a “walk-in”. I was sure glad when he did just that. He even told the nurse it was an emergency. I was really grateful. I sure couldn’t afford the copay. What little money my family could spare to send me was already going for things the TDCJ doesn’t supply like stamps, deodorant, and shampoo. I got in to see the nurse practitioner, and she diagnosed me with rosacea. She prescribed some antibiotics and ointments. She sent me on my way, and I sure thought I’d lucked out, because none of the nurses said anything about having to pay the copay, and I sure didn’t sign anything authorizing the money, to be taken out of my account. I thought I wouldn’t be charged.
Not long after this, my aunt sent me some money, so I could get some of the things I needed. I waited anxiously for commissary day, and it came. Well, I go down there with a list in hand with all the stuff I need made up to the amount my aunt had sent, but when I get to the window, I find out the TDCJ has charged me for the medical visit, and they’d already taken half of my aunt’s money. It’d been so long since I’d been able to go to the store, I really needed every penny she’d sent. I didn’t know what to do, so I wrote the Univeristy of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), since they are the ones who provide our medical care. I asked why I was being charged for an emergency medical walk-in. I even quoted their own policy to them. In their reply, they said that upon review, they’d determined that the visit didn’t constitute an emergency, and that the copay fee was going to stick. Turn s out it’s up to them to determine what’s an emergency and what isn’t. I reminded them that’s sergeant walked me over to the infirmary. I reminded them that the nurse practitioner had prescribed antibiotics… you know… ANTIBTOTICS! That’s for infection, isn’t it? A spreading infectious contagion isn’t an emergency??!! “No. You’re still being charged.” Here it is almost 2018, and I’m still trying to pay off this stupid bill. I finally got it down to $42 and some change, but if I have to go back and get charged again, I’ll owe a whole other $100 on top of that and be right back in the hole, only worse.
Now, my family knows I’ve been charged this money, and they don’t want to lose any of their money, so what do they do? They stop sending me ANY money. Yeah, they want to help me, but they don’t want the money taken by the same people that are keeping their family member locked up. On top of that, they are taxpaying citizens. They’ve ALREADY paid for my medical care. Their taxes go to the TDCJ to pay for the prison system, and the UTMB to pay for the publicl funded medical, education system, and even with all that, they pay to put money on my books so I can get deodorant and write home. Not to mention the extortionary prices for the phone calls home. And since they won’t send any money, I end up having to do things that are against the rules to make money to pay for these necessities. This is called “hustling” in the pen.
Here’s the deal-with hustling. If I didn’t do ANYTHING at all, and just waited for someone to GIVE me something out of charity, and even if someone was generous enough to do just that, it would be against the rules. It would be called trafficking and trading. You can’t do that, and if an officer really wants to press the issue, they could write you a case. It’s ALSO trafficking and trading for me to do stuff like wash clothes for a soup a garment, which is my hustle. I’m really good at laundry, so this is how I make my money. Other guys in here might sew shoes or clothes that need repair. Some do legal work. some scumbags steal stuff they ought to be giving you for free, like chow hall food, and sell it on the wings. This goes beyond T&T and gets into stealing, which is a higher level of case. Prison makes people do stupid stuff.
Another thing is that if I get hurt while working my job or while messing around on the rec yard, not only will I likely be charged $100 for the copay, but I’ll get written up with a case on top of that. Talk about double jeopardy! It seems to me that all they see is another way to make money off of us. Because of this, many men in here refuse to seek medical care no matter how badly it’s needed. This ends up costing the TDCJ/UTMB MORE money, because illnesses that could have been caught in early stages or stopped altogether by preventative medicine, are left Untreated until they require special care or costly medicines. Seem like an exaggeration to someone who hasn’t actually experienced the system, but it truly feels like they’d rather you just go ahead and die then bother them to take care of you.
My rash, I think, was probably brought on, or at least aggravated by, the heat of summer and the lack of a way to cool off effectively. Really, your choices are to be hot or wet, all the time, and neither is really good for your Skin. What I’m saying is that lots of inmates get these rashes during the summer. They can’t be avoided, and yet, knowing that the chances are that you WILL get one of these rashes sooner or later, due to the conditions that they are making us live in, they charge you the copay anyway. We don’t have any :control over the climate or how our bodies are going to react to it. And we are surrounded by germs and disease, living in these unsanitary conditions. Right now in the dorm where 1 live, there are two toilets that need new wax rings. EVERY day, sewage water, straight from the flushes, gurgles up and floods the entire floor of the bathroom. Not only that, but several of the urinals need new parts, and they get stuck in mid-flush spilling urine-saturated water all over the floor. It’s not IF you will get Sick, its only WHEN. Now is it fair to set the conditions that will certainly make someone sick, then turn arobnd and make them pay for the medical care they get when they finally do? Of course not.
I know there’s nothing free in this world, and I really don’t’ expect free medical treatment. However, I belie’ve that TDCJ and UTMB policies need to change in order to better address the needs of the inmates and their families, after all, tfiey are the ones who are really paying the bill… and paying it TWICE! There have to be ways they can be more fair in how copsys are charged, and for what. Is it reasonable or right to have s copay. 1,430% higher than ANY other copay in the U.S.? No, it’s not. Is it reasonable or right that the cost of medical care skyrocketed exorbitantly in one year over 3,333%? Absolutely not. If this was a pharma company, the congress would be grilling them before committee! As a percentage of income (remember, $0 per year!), $3.00 was reasonable, and for most inmates, at least, doable. But now, the government has found another seeming cash cow, and we all know once they get their mittens on some green, you can’t beat them off with a stick. But if lowering the copay isn’t a feasible solution, maybe introducing inmate wages like all the other 49 sister states would be the right thing to do. Then, higher copays would be more reasonable. It would help a lot of these guys to be independent of their family’s Money and work for a change, a badly needed lesson for a lot of us.
I’m really fortunate in that I’ll be leaving soon, but I really feel badly for the guys I’ll be leaving behind who have to keep facing these problems. I especially feel for those with long sentences, who will get out with very little chance of beginning a meaningful career or learning new job skills at advanced age, but will have this big medical bill hanging over their head. It’s going to make for a long road if things don’t change soon. But, as it so often seems, the TDCJ doesn’t like to change things at all until inmates end up dead.

Francisco Hernandez

Author Francisco Hernandez

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