Whenever we fall ill, we immediately have the option of seeing a doctor. The approximately 2.4 million inmates in our nation’s prisons have a totally different story to tell.
Often, US prisoners and inmates are deprived of basic health care while they are serving their terms. This has severe consequences during and after incarceration.
Harvard Report on Prison Healthcare
According to research conducted by the Harvard Physicians at the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School (HMS), almost 14% of these inmates did not see doctors during their incarcerations.
Inmates seeking treatment for severe illnesses or requiring surgical care may have their requests completely ignored.
The Harvard report also found that of the 10 million individuals released from prison:
- 70-90% have no health insurance
- 40% of that number have an active chronic health condition—much higher than an average American citizen of similar age
How Bad are the Living Conditions in US Prisons?
The worst part of prison is meant to be the loss of freedom. But the loss of life is a real possibility as well, due to a number of unhealthy living conditions:
- Viral infections. Among inmates diagnosed with chronic illnesses, viral infections are widespread. The poor prison infrastructures present themselves as breeding grounds for a lot of infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, etc.
- Sanitary conditions. Because many prison systems are overcrowded, a cell that was intended to house one inmate now holds two or more. The toilet is unhygienic, barrier-free and often without a lid. Prisoners are required to eat and sleep next to these flushing open lavatories.
- Substance abuse. Drug use is not uncommon. This also can lead to spreading deadly viruses.
In effect, this lack of access to health care puts all prison inmates on death row.
How Bad is the Healthcare in US Prisons?
The level of and access to healthcare in prisons in the US varies from state to state. These are some of the most common barriers to prison healthcare:
- Making an appointment. Most prisoners are only allowed to obtain health care after submitting “sick call” slips (or duckets) to the on-duty officers. For non-emergency health issues, an appointment may be set with the prison doctor, although inmates with serious health issues are taken to the hospital or sometimes treated on site.
- Unaffordable Copays. Most states authorize a nominal co-payment fee that can go as high as $100.
- No Regular Checkups. The time interval between each check-up is very uneven and left unchecked by the authorities.
States with tight budgets are reluctant to spend money on convicted criminals. But prison conditions are becoming a human rights issue. Better and regular prison healthcare is needed.
Inadequate Prison Healthcare Puts Inmates’ Lives at Stake
The sanctum of prison is supposed to make prisoners lose their previous identity and emerge as a free individuals with new aspirations. Prison itself is supposed to be a place for recovery and rehabilitation. Too often that is not true.
For one thing, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases among prison inmates are greater than the general public.
According to the HIV InSite, which is a project of the University of California San Francisco Center for HIV information:
Prisoners are at exceptional risk for infection with HIV because of the association of injection drug use with incarceration.
Women prisoners are at even greater risk due to the greater likelihood of pre-incarceration domestic abuse and sexual abuse before and during prison.
For another, autopsy results revealed that two-thirds of inmates who needed surgery for non-liver related medical issues never actually received it. This includes hernia patients.
Out of 301 reported prison deaths, 51 were due to conditions that required surgery, including 30 with cirrhosis of the liver. By contrast, only 18 died from trauma.
Another problem that is imposing a serious risk on the lives of inmates is lack of access to mental health care in US prisons.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI, 15 to 30% of prison inmates require mental health intervention during their term in prison. Inmates with such issues may take extreme measures to harm themselves or turn to drugs and addiction. Some of these conditions include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Other mental illnesses
After release, inmates are often left with a number of health conditions that need immediate medical attention or drug-related issues that cause harm to the public without the proper health care.
Even if we agree that prison inmates deserve their incarceration for their crimes, their poor or erratic medical care and unhygienic living conditions reveal a humanitarian crisis. No individual, whether of good or bad character, should be denied the right to basic healthcare, with no holistic rehab in their futures.
These conditions aren’t restricted to the worst of the worst. Even inmates who serve sentences for petty crimes may fall victim to the crumbling prison healthcare system within the prison system.
Not every crime merits capital punishment. And no laws permit torture. The solution is better mental health and substance abuse care inside and outside prisons. Such care might even result in fewer inmates incarcerated in the first place.
- Kantor, Elizabeth. “HIV Transmission and Prevention in Prisons.” HIV InSite, Regents of the University of California, April 2006, hivinsite.ucsf.edu/insite?page=kb-07-04-13.
- Cecere, David. “Inmates suffer from chronic illness, poor access to health care.” The Harvard Gazette, 15 January 2009. news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2009/01/inmates-suffer-from-chronic-illness-poor-access-to-health-care/.
- Carroll, Linda. “Lack of surgical care in U.S. prisons may cost lives.” 12 September 2018, reuters.com/article/us-health-prison-surgery/lack-of-surgical-care-in-us-prisons-may-cost-lives-idUSKCN1LS2KN
- “Jailing People with Mental Illness.” NAMI, www.nami.org/Learn-More/Public-Policy/Jailing-People-with-Mental-Illness.
Guest Blogger Bio
Charles L. Watson is a freelance writer. Although he holds no medical or psychological degree, his content writing specialties include both addiction and health-related issues. His guest posts on Prison Rideshare Network touch on those topics. Charles can be reached on Twitter at the handle @charleswatson00.