We’re all prisoners

When you think about it, America’s penal and health-care systems have much in common. The Big House could just as easily refer to a hospital as a correctional facility. Both house prisoners, be they of the state or their own bodies. Nurses and guards—the folks who really run the respective shows—make rounds, have many problem “guests” (uninvited all) and, if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself in their charge, they get to see you naked … and vulnerable.

As these sobering books make oh so clear in their oh-so-uniquely-frightening ways, the ultimate victim of these entrenched, multigazillion-dollar, profoundly boondoggled systems is the American public.

Sasha Abramsky uses painstaking research, anecdotal evidence from inmates and tours of penal hellholes across the land to lock in American Furies, which completes a trilogy for the Sacramento author, public-policy organization Demos fellow and frequent SN&R contributor.

Given all the reporting on the subject, including his own, it shouldn’t be surprising that Abramsky can’t trip over a prison in this country without unearthing horrid conditions and inhumanity toward the incarcerated. You might think of these places collectively as the training ground for Abu Ghraib—if Abramsky didn’t already reach that conclusion for you.

We, of course, arrived at this state of Papillion-style imprisonment after politicians, law-and-order conservatives for the most part, won strings of elections by demonizing the poor (read: criminal class), supposedly liberal judges and perceived inmate-coddling wardens. It is small wonder our prison population has mushroomed many times beyond prison capacities.

Correctional-officer unions wielding ever-increasing political clout, coupled with taxpayer-funded building of new prisons and the trifecta of the libertarian wet dream—privatization of the penal system—have created a prison-industrial complex so powerful that ol’ Ike would forget all about that penny-ante military-industrial complex.

The titular furies, which derive from Greek mythology, refer to goddesses who avenged wrongs and hounded unpunished criminals. Our only hope is that Americans eventually will discover their inner furies and hound out of the public arena the unpunished criminals who burdened us with this hellish mess.

<div class="ContentSubHeadline">Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis—and the People Who Pay the Price</div> <div class="ContentSubHeadline2">Jonathan Cohn</div> <div class="ContentSubHeadline3">Harper Collins, New York</div>

Like Abramsky, Jonathan Cohn is for the most part detached as he unveils scary tales of everyday health-care wrongs across America. Where Michael Moore’s similarly titled documentary Sicko relies mostly on insurance-industry insiders to make a similarly revolting and heartbreaking case, with Sick, its author and his subjects seemingly have no axes to grind. What makes Cohn’s reporting on average folks losing their homes, careers, families, body parts and even lives frightening is how matter of fact it is, how anyone reading this right now could experience the same nightmares.

We all know of the millions of uninsured Americans, how many are one disastrous medical encounter away from total ruin. But get this: The insured get chewed up and spit out by our health-care system just as often as the uninsured, and it matters not what your level of coverage is.

As Cohn lays it out, we are in profound crisis mode right now. It’s going to get much worse and the private sector cannot possibly solve our dilemma alone. He craps all over the Bush administration’s answer: health savings accounts. What we’re headed toward will flop the traditional notion of insurance—the premiums of the healthy paying for the sick—and instead have the sick paying the brunt of costs. Further, while in their sick states of mind, they will be expected to try and cut deals for lower costs from doctors and pharmacists. Yeah, that’ll work.

Naturally, Cohn concludes by pointing to universal health care like that in France, Canada and Britain as the answer. And to those who will counter that government-run programs don’t work, he cites an American example: Medicare. Despite its faults, Cohn argues, Medicare does what it was designed to do.

Any plan will have its problems, but if we do not improve on what we have now—or the privatized hybrid that is being pushed down our throats—Americans will know sick all right.