SANTA CRUZ — Inmates who seek medical care from inside California’s prisons and jails are required to pay a $5 co-pay per visit — a cost that, on its surface, seems relatively low.
But with the minimum wage inside state prisons at just 8 cents an hour, inmates without financial support from the outside can be forced to work more than 60 hours to afford a single visit for medical, dental or mental health care.
By comparison, if minimum-wage workers outside prison walls had to work that long to see a doctor, they’d be shelling out co-pays of about $650.
A bill introduced Monday in the state legislature, Assembly Bill 45, would change that — scrapping the co-payments in response to advocacy from prisoners’ rights groups who say the fees lead to avoidance of medical care.
Authored by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, the bill is backed by the the ACLU and two prisoner advocacy groups, the California Coalition for Women Prisoners and Initiate Justice.
In a news release, Stone said that while the fees may seem small to those outside of the prison system, the co-payments can have a real impact on inmates’ health.
“Limiting access to care in this way leads to unnecessary suffering, the development of more chronic conditions, and the spread of infectious diseases,” said Stone, who has authored a number of criminal justice reform bills since his election to the Assembly in 2012.
Health care co-pays are cited as one of inmates’ biggest concerns in recent surveys of thousands of Illinois inmates, where the same $5 co-pay is in effect. More than half of those surveyed said they had avoided health care because they couldn’t afford to pay the fees.
Tayler Lytle, an organizer with the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, has felt the impacts of the fees firsthand. Lytle, a former foster youth, spent time incarcerated as a teen and served a two-year stint in state prison as an adult, where she said she was forced to choose between buying basic hygiene products and seeing a doctor.
Coming up with $5 for a medical visit is far from easy, Lytle said in a recent interview.
“It’s a huge challenge, trust me,” she said. “I was working in the kitchen and I made 8 cents an hour. There was never an opportunity where I saw $5 in my account at the end of the month.”