Health Care in Prison: Behind Richard James Verone's Thinking

The man who robbed a bank for $1, just so he could go to jail for health care only did what scores of people have been doing for years.

Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

When James Verone robbed a bank for a dollar this week so he could go to prison to receive needed medical treatment, he left a lot of people scratching their heads—or snickering at him. But the only difference between him and the thousands of others who’ve done the exact same thing is… he snitched; in street parlance, he “gave up the game.” The untold numbers of folks who, for decades, have taken what most citizens probably view as an extreme measure usually have remained silent in regard to their real intentions, but now the jig is up.

Now, with Verone’s story going viral, a bunch of additional broke folks without health insurance will probably want to horn in on what was a well-kept secret among the criminal class: At its four medical facilities strategically placed around the country, the Federal Bureau of Prisons provides very decent medical care. And the kicker is, when a prisoner has a medical condition that is beyond the ability of the federal prison staff doctors, the patient (to doctors they’re “patients” not “prisoners”… no matter what guards and prison administrators might say to the contrary) are shipped off to outside hospitals. Some even end up in world-class facilities like the famed Mayo Clinic.

“Imagine a place where you don’t have to pay anything or no more than $5 for a visit to the medical clinic,” Roberto Hugh Potter, an expert in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Florida wrote in an article about the future of universal health care, “Where your physician-prescribed medications cost you nothing, where there is no penalty for missing work or school to go to the clinic, and where every individual has an absolute right to access and receive “adequate, reactive” health care. Welcome to prison!”

He says correctional systems across the country continually struggle with the high costs of providing prisoners health care and “they experiment with a variety of ways to reduce ‘unnecessary’ utilization of medical services by prisoners.” But administrators know they cannot, by law, reduce services but so far.

So, while many find Verone’s method of solving his health-care dilemma unique, many who live on the financial margins of society—the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill—have for years treated jails and prisons in much the same manner as northern snowbirds treat their Florida condos… a nice warm place to spend the winter.

It’s surprising that no homeless-rights organization has not come up with a Michelin Guide-type of rating system, informing this demographic on where the best food or medical services are to be had. Nonetheless it’s a sure bet an unofficial, word-of-mouth ranking system is already firmly in place.

Consider this: Last year, Tucson University Medical Center “confirmed that a patient, who was refused a liver transplant due to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s decision to cut the state benefit that would have made the transplant possible, had died.” Now, would that patient have lived if they were in a federal prison instead of the state of Arizona? Maybe so, maybe not … indeed, perhaps a donor might not have been located in time. Nonetheless, a serious effort would have been made on the prisoner/patient’s behalf, an effort that’s increasingly lacking in the “free” world.

Indeed, one man’s prison is truly another man’s palace, but now that this blabbermouth Verone has spilled the beans, all sorts of riff-raff will be clamoring to get into the better facilities for service. An old prison joke has an experienced convict telling a new arrival: “See that barbed-wire fence over there? It’s not there to keep you in… it’s there to keep them other folks out.”

The aging of the U.S. prison population has only complicated matters and made the proposition of delivering health-care services even more expensive. Still, the feds set the standards and no prison system in the country dares to deviate too far from them, lest they incur the wrath of a federal judge.California’s prison system was recently taken to task by the U.S. Supreme Court for overcrowded conditions, and the leading issue was the resulting substandard health care. Administrators were given a window of opportunity by the court to rectify the problem, but if the state fails to come into compliance the system could wind up under the watchful eye of the federal courts… which has the authority to seize monies from the state treasury to fix the problem.While reactionary proponents of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key,” old-style justice no doubt suffer conniptions at what they perceive as “coddling,” prisoner-inspired lawsuits of the 1980s pretty much settled the issue of states’ responsibility to provide adequate health care to prisoners and the standards are not about to change. Amnesty International and other human-rights organizations monitor prisons around the world, and they are not about to stand by and watch the clock be turned back in terms of prisoner health care in America. The problem for John Q. Taxpayer is that delivering the same level and quality of medical care in a correctional facility is substantially more expensive than delivering the same services in the free world… due to the added costs of security. Which causes experts like Dr. Potter to raise the question, would real universal health care be less expensive in the long run if hordes of other sick folk begin breaking the law simply to get health care? Put another way, which is worse, a few years in prison (and emerging healed and healthy) … or death?

Verone is receiving the medical attention he says he needed for a growth on his chest, two ruptured disks, and a problem with his left foot, but the doctor who’s treating him charges he’s “manipulating the system,” a charge Verone doesn’t deny.

Some commentators who are as incensed as the doctor treating Verone are rightly saying that since this is his first offense, he probably won’t get the three-year sentence he was angling for, a sentence that would keep him with “three hots and a cot” until his Social Security kicks in at age 62. True, he’ll no doubt get probation. But, as a convicted felon, all he has to do is find himself a firearm upon his release and let the feds know he’s in possession of it: Automatic three-year mandatory minimum sentence. If he doesn’t figure this out on his own, trust me, some convict will put him wise.

Damien Calvert, who was recently released from an Ohio prison for a drug-related murder he committed when he was 18 (he’s now a straight-A student at Cleveland State University, studying nonprofit management), said that part of the reason recidivism rates are so high is due to the lack of access to health care on the streets for parolees. “Guys get out with a week’s supply of their medications,” said Calvert, “and when they’re unable to navigate the health-care delivery system out here in the world, they commit another crime so they can go back to their comfort zone, back to where they know they’ll be kept alive. But there’s something fundamentally wrong in this country when people have to resort to committing crimes to receive adequate health care.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

An experienced, old-school convict would not have robbed a bank for $1 as Verone did; they, instead, would have heaved a brick through the front window of their local Post Office, a crime that’s guaranteed to result in a federal judge giving out a buffalo. For those unfamiliar with the argot, a “buffalo” is a “nickel” uh, five years? Plenty of time to get healthy… and pick up a nice hobby to boot.