By Tonya Sams
Once someone has been incarcerated and paid their debt to society, they should not be repeatedly punished for their past actions. Unfortunately, many reentrants feel as if they are still being punished because they lack access to the medical care that they received for chronic illnesses while they were incarcerated.
The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland’s Health Equity for Reentering Ohioans (HERO) project is addressing this issue and analyzing how systemic racism within the criminal justice system plays a role.
“Reentrants feel like this is a part of their never- ending sentence; they can’t find homes, jobs or healthcare,” says Jennifer Kinsley Smith, Senior Attorney for Health & Opportunity at Legal Aid and the HERO project manager. Correctional facilities are supposed to provide reentrants information about accessing a number of critical resources, including healthcare, to prepare them for life outside of prison.
For example, Ohio policy states that Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction facilities are required to educate Medicaid-eligible inmates on how to connect with Medicaid benefits and programming prior to release (either for first-time coverage or to reinstate suspended benefits). Unfortunately, Jennifer says, many reentrants are not being provided access to this programming. Additionally, many Medicare-eligible individuals miss deadlines to receive these benefits because correctional facilities do not provide the necessary information and/or the internet or telephone access necessary to complete the application process. Furthermore, when some reentrants who have chronic illnesses leave prison, they are also leaving behind steady medical care – and they cannot afford to pay the large premiums or penalties for missing enrollment windows.
State guidelines require that facilities work with Medicaid to teach inmates about pre-enrollment, and help those scheduled for imminent release choose their managed care plan. Facilities are required to establish a plan for reentrants with chronic illnesses to continue to manage their healthcare upon release. This plan should be created by their managed care plan.
“Even with all of these guidelines in place, what we’re seeing in the community – people who come to legal aid or local hospitals – what we’re seeing is that the health care needs of reentrants are regularly not being met,” Jennifer says.
With no access to healthcare, jobs, or transportation established prior to release, many reentrants have struggled to successfully return to the community. According to a 2007 article in The New England Journal of Medicine, during the two weeks following release from prison, the mortality rate among released prisoners is 12.7 times the rate of the general population.
Legal Aid’s HERO project (a collaborative effort among attorneys, doctors, and researchers) hopes to encourage a post-release health care option in Northeast Ohio modeled after the program created in Franklin County. Franklin County partnered with community organizations to create a safety net for reentrants. Immediately upon release, reentrants are provided with information and brochures to help guide them towards a true fresh start. They can apply for Medicaid, set up appointments, and get referrals to organizations that provide comprehensive supports for reentrants. They also receive bus passes to help them get to medical appointments, fill medical prescriptions, and go to job interviews.
If you are a reentrant and want to know more about your health care rights, please call Jennifer at 216-861-5443.
To apply for free legal assistance, call Legal Aid at 216-687-1900 or visit www.lasclev.org.
Tonya Sams is the Development and Communications Assistant at The Legal Aid Society of Cleveland.