Understanding How Race, Class,
and Gender Impact the Health of
RONALD L. BRAITHWAITE
According to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey (2001), notable differences in health status exist between white women and women of color in the general U.S. population. Women of color are more likely to report that they are in fair or poor health. One-fifth of African American women, 29 percent of Latinas, and 13 percent of white women assess their health status as fair or poor. African American women are more likely to have a physical condition that limits routine activities such as participating in school or work or conducting daily housework. Despite their reports of poorer health status, Latinas are actually less likely to report that they have a chronic condition in need of ongoing care. Incidence of chronic illnesses also varies for women by race and ethnicity. Over half (57 percent) of African American women ages 45 to 64 have been diagnosed with hypertension, twice the rate for white women (28 percent) of the same age. African American women (40 percent) are also significantly more likely to have arthritis than Latinas (33 percent) and white women (32 percent). African American (16 percent) and Latina (17 percent) women both experience higher prevalence of diabetes compared to white women (9 percent).
While health disparities among women in the general population are well documented; women entering the correctional system represent a population already at high risk for communicable diseases, substance abuse, and mental health problems (Cotton-Oldenburg et al. 1997; Fogel and Martin 1992; Hammert 1998; Martin et al. 1995; Smith and Dillard 1997). Because the number of incarcerated men historically has far exceeded that of incarcerated women (women represented 6.5 percent of prison inmates at the end of 1998), limited attention has been paid to the unique health concerns of this smaller population (Beck and Mumola 1999). With increasing numbers of women entering and exiting the prison system, there is a compelling need to ensure that mechanisms are in place that can adequately address the above-noted health issues.