Commission: U.S. Prisons, Jails in Need of Reform: Problems Include Violence, Safety, Lack of Mental Health Care

By Cowdrey, Leah | The Nation's Health, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Commission: U.S. Prisons, Jails in Need of Reform: Problems Include Violence, Safety, Lack of Mental Health Care


Cowdrey, Leah, The Nation's Health


CORRECTIONAL facilities in the United States fail to provide proper safety, health care and living conditions for inmates and lack adequate funding and oversight, according to a new report that calls for major reforms.

Released June 2 in conjunction with a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., "Confronting Confinement" documents conditions in the nation's 5,000 prisons and jails. The report, prepared by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, calls for reforms such as violence prevention, independent oversight agencies in each state and worker training.

The 20-member commission reached its conclusions following prison site visits, public hearings, interviews with corrections officers and a research review.

"These reforms are not just for the prisoners but for public safety and the greater communities," said commission member Gary D. Maynard, director of the Iowa Department of Corrections and president-elect of the American Correctional Association, who spoke at the Senate hearing. "The prison system is supposed to exist to keep the public safe."

Among the most serious problems in the nation's correctional facilities are those involving medical care. According to the report, prisons often have only two or three doctors available to serve thousands of inmates. Some states allow physicians who are under-qualified, or who possess restricted licenses or scars on their medical records, to work in prisons or jails, the report said. Legislators often pressure prison administrators to require co-payments for medical care, which discourages many sick prisoners from seeking help, the commission found. The report recommended abolishing mandatory co-payments for prisoners and also extending Medicare and Medicaid to those who are eligible.

Violence in prisons, particularly physical and sexual abuse, is also a widespread problem in prisons. Data cited in the report showed more than 34,000 reported assaults among prisoners in 2000 and almost 18,000 assaults against staff.

"No criminal, no matter how terrible the crime, deserves being beaten or raped ... in the hands of the government," said commission member Pat Nolan, president of the Prison Fellowship's Justice Fellowship and a member of the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission, during the Senate hearing.

To reduce violence, prisons should increase worker productivity, reduce crowding, utilize more surveillance technology and strengthen bonds between prisoners and their families, the report recommended.

The commission also found that at least 350,000 inmates have a serious mental illness and most do not receive proper treatment. …

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