Constant readers, some of you may be aware that one major nexus of MRSA infection gets very little attention, though I’ve tried to raise it here periodically. That’s MRSA in jails and prisons: Thanks to poor hygiene and extraordinary overcrowding, jails and prisons are hotbeds of the bug, and it is very common for people to develop an infection after they are incarcerated, and then to be unable to shake it because they cannot keep up with hygiene, cannot get access to a doctor, etc.
Some commenters, here and elsewhere online, have suggested that this is no more than prisoners deserve. This seems to me both extraordinarily uncompassionate and epidemiologically foolish. In case no one has noticed, prison overcrowding is so serious that many prisoners don’t stay in prison for their sentenced time. And when they come out, and come back to their communities, they bring MRSA with them. That’s not even to mention the risk to the very large numbers of people who are not themselves incarcerated, but go in and out of jails and prisons every day: correctional officers, cooks, medical staff, and on and on.
All of which makes the news from California on Friday more than usually depressing.
Prison medical care in California has been so bad (see Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 emergency declaration) that it is no longer under control of the state, but rather administered by a court-appointed receiver, who said in 2007:
Across the board we see delays in diagnosis and access to care and needed tests; misfiled, incomplete or illegible medical records; lack of space, sanitation and staffing; botched hand-offs of medical information during inmate transfers; failures by clinicians to recognize and evaluate “red flag” symptoms, follow published guidelines, perform basic physical examinations or respond to patient complaints; abdication of responsibility for patient care and lack of critical thinking or requests for help in difficult cases.
The prevalence of MRSA in California prisons is an important part of that picture : Correctional officers have sued over MRSA they acquired at work. (And yes, you can read all about it in SUPERBUG.)
Now, you may also know that California is in the midst of a gruesome budget crunch — and on Friday, the push for better prison medical care and the deficit in the state budget collided, and the deficit won. According to the Associated Press and the San Francisco Chronicle, the Schwarzenegger administration backed off an agreed-upon plan that would have ended the receivership and returned control of the medical system to the state at a cost of $1.9 billion, one-fourth of what was originally thought to be needed.
Schwarzenegger said in a statement Thursday that California cannot afford the additional cost.
“We cannot agree to spend $2 billion on state-of-the-art medical facilities for prisoners while we are cutting billions of dollars from schools and health care programs for children and seniors,” he said.
Schwarzenegger and lawmakers are considering eliminating or significantly reducing education, state parks and core social programs to address the $24.3 billion budget shortfall. (AP, byline Don Thompson)
The Chronicle story makes clear that the prison spending would not have made the deficit any worse, because the money was coming from new bonds, not from the state’s general fund. Its online commenters don’t seem to have paid attention to that, as they hit the same familiar themes:
- “Why should the public have to babysit them for the medical problems they brought on themselves… Let them rot.”
- “In my opinion bad medical services in prison should be only one of the deterrents that keeps one from wanting to go to jail. “
- “Prison should be a place that is so intolerable, that no sane person would ever want to go there.“
It’s easy to moralize. It’s much harder, as we know here, to control the continuing spread of a microbe that has already gotten a solid foothold in the community. California’s decision to not improve medical care in its prisons — and therefore not address the threat of MRSA to its prisoners and staff — is practically a guarantee that the state’s already substantial community MRSA problem is going to get much worse.