Amy Osborne for Tradeoffs
Lee Reed spent his first night after getting out of a state prison sleeping in the stairwell of a parking garage in downtown San Francisco.
Just a few days shy of his 62nd birthday, Reed had nowhere else to go. During his two decades in prison, his mom and wife had died, and he’d lost touch with most of his family.
“I had nothing. I had nobody,” Reed said.
But he wasn’t alone on that first night. He had the same companion he’d had for years: agonizing back pain.
“Imagine somebody standing on your foot, and you can’t stop that pain,” Reed said. “It’s going to be there when you wake up. It’s going to be there when you go to sleep. Half the time I never even got out of bed while I was in prison because I couldn’t stand up, it was so painful.”
Reed’s doctors in prison told him he needed back surgery, but because he was so close to his release date, they said he’d have to get it done on the outside. Reed saw that surgery as his ticket to being able to get a job and effectively reenter society.
But without health insurance or a support network, being able to do any kind of work seemed impossible as he laid down in the concrete stairwell, his prison-issued walker his only blanket.
“I was tired, and I was literally ready to give up,” Reed said.
Medicaid can be a bridge to a healthy life outside
Around 600,000 people leave prison in the U.S. every year, and another 10 million are released from county jails. Like Reed, many of them suffer from chronic physical, mental and substance use conditions. Research shows they are also at an extremely high risk of hospitalization and death; one study from Washington state found that recently incarcerated people were 12 times more likely to die in their first two weeks after release from prison than the general population.
That’s why in January, federal health officials for the first time signed off on having Medicaid pay for services for some people in state or local jails, prisons or juvenile facilities. The goal is to