Correctional Health Care: A Growing Concern

By Weedon, Joey R. | Corrections Today, October 2003 | Go to article overview

Correctional Health Care: A Growing Concern


Weedon, Joey R., Corrections Today


During the past year, the media, advocates for correctional health care and inmates from across the country have focused a lot of attention on correctional health care. Unfortunately, this attention has largely been generated by those who accuse correctional facilities of being "incubators of disease." While there are undoubtedly instances in which an individual in a correctional environment is inflicted with a communicable disease or an individual fails to receive adequate health care, this is the exception rather than the rule.

Critics often point to the vast numbers of individuals leaving correctional environments--more than 8 million in 2000, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics--who have infectious or contagious diseases. In 1996 alone, 1.3 million inmates who were released from jail or prison were infected with hepatitis C, constituting 29 percent of the 4.5 million cases nationwide. Also that year, released inmates accounted for 35 percent of the 34,000 Americans with tuberculosis and for 13 to 17 percent of Americans infected with HIV or AIDS. However, these same critics often fail to look at the prevalence of those diseases among offenders upon admission to correctional environments.

The vast majority of individuals who enter the nation's jails and prisons come from socioeconomic environments, as well as engage in behaviors, that place them at a high risk of chronic and infectious diseases, including hepatitis viruses, HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis. These individuals carry these diseases with them from the community into the criminal justice system.

In fact, the burdens placed on corrections does not end there. The three largest de facto mental health systems in the United States are the correctional jurisdictions in Los Angeles County, Cook County, Ill., and New York City. According to BJS, more than 16 percent of adults incarcerated in U.S. jails and prisons have a mental illness. And the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that more than 20 percent of youths in the juvenile justice system have serious mental health problems. Many more offenders have co-occurring mental health and substance abuse disorders.

The corrections field obviously is faced with a tremendous challenge in meeting the health care and mental health needs of offenders. …

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