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Medicaid access for inmates is the first step to prison reform

Rose Wong | Commonwealth fund

A new program that provides targeted Medicaid services to incarcerated individuals must be adopted immediately in New York. It will prove key to their future by creating a point of continuity within the transition back into society.

New York could be next to enroll in a federal funding program that sets inmates up with healthcare services prior to their release, according to Times Union.

It marks the first time that Medicaid will offer healthcare coverage for inmates, after the Affordable Care Act offered services to returning community members but excluded those who are actively serving time.

This pilot program is modeled by Medi-Cal in California, which allows inmates to receive Medicaid services for up to 90 days before their scheduled release date.

Having a secure connection to healthcare services is a matter of life or death for many inmates preparing to leave prison. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 85% of the prison population has an active substance use disorder or were under the influence of drugs at the time they were imprisoned.

This group is overwhelmingly susceptible to overdose and suicide, outlining the imperative need for a stable transition out of prison that achieves both rehabilitation and recovery.

The familiarity provided by this secure new program will grant freed individuals the confidence to seek the care they require and will aid in avoiding additional interactions with the criminal legal system upon release.

U.S. Representative Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, is working to codify this effort nationally so that this new Medicaid provision will be available to all inmates. The “Reentry Act” will shift the cost burden away from local facilities and direct national concern to assisting a historically neglected, at-risk group who urgently needs the government’s help the most.

When discussing the allocation of Medicaid, it is important to realize how unethical it was to criminalize drugs in the first place.

In the mid-twentieth century, presidential administrations began to lean towards restrictive policies towards drugs as a retaliation against the rising countercultural movement that was prevalent during the 1960s.

A 1969 Gallup poll found that 48% of respondents believed drug use was a prominent issue in their communities, but the same survey revealed that only 4% of Americans had tried drugs once.

Right-wing politicians took this fear and exploited it beyond reasonable proportion to selfishly build fuel for their political platforms.

Evidently, President Richard Nixon’s promise to instill strict penalties, such as minimum prison sentences for drug possession and distribution, excited socially conservative voters and won him the presidency.

America’s War on Drugs, a campaign coined by Nixon, officially criminalized drugs in 1971.

The Nixon administration also established the Drug Enforcement Agency, a special police force that targets illegal drug use and smuggling.

The U.S. shifted towards a zero-tolerance policy towards drugs, whose propaganda was reflected across society, from the legal system to schools. Familiar sayings like “Just Say No!” from the Reagan era were coldly barked at young people inside the classroom, with no supporting scientific evidence.

Across the aisle, Democratic President Bill Clinton’s crime policy funded the construction of new state prisons and made it easier to receive life sentences for nonviolent crimes.

According to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Nixon’s domestic policy chief later admitted that the Nixon campaign did not actually intend the legislation to be for drug reform but was instead made to oppress “the antiwar left and Black people.”

The War on Drugs campaign failed because incarceration alienated those who needed help instead of properly rehabilitating them, drastically worsening the problem. No one should be in prison for a drug offense.

Federal money is still spent on law enforcement and catching those in possession of drugs instead of guiding those in desperate need of medical assistance towards reclaiming their lives.

Schools still tell students to say “no” instead of telling them why, continually enabling the dooming school-to-prison pipeline.

The least the federal government can do is to use its money to provide all current inmates with access to Medicaid before release, in efforts to take a step towards entirely reforming a system whose foundation lies in blatant racism and disregard for scientific facts.

It is imperative that New York leads the country alongside California in setting a good example.

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