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Bureau of Justice Study Statistics Show Depth of Prisoner Health Issues

by Derek Gilna

A special report issued by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in February, 2015 documents what prison rights advocates have known for years, that “half of state and federal prisons and local jail inmates have serious chronic health problems." The study concluded that prisoners are nearly twice as likely to have either a chronic medical condition or an infectious disease. Of course, the federal government does not point an incriminating finger at itself for not properly addressing those health concerns.

These chronic conditions include cancer, high blood pressure, stroke-related problems, diabetes, heart-related problems, kidney-related problems, arthritis, asthma, and cirrhosis of the liver. The study also states that "(t)wenty-one percent of prisoners and 14% of all jail inmates reported ever having an infectious disease, including tuberculosis, hepatitis B and C, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs)."

The study also noted that "compared to the general population, both prisoners and jail inmates were more likely to report every having a chronic condition, and they were more likely to report each of the specific chronic conditions measured." Among prisoners and jail inmates, females were more likely than males to report ever having a chronic condition, "and (h)igh blood pressure was the most common chronic condition reported by prisoners and jail inmates," the study said.

The study said that America's prisoners are also getting older, and the jails and prisons are becoming inundated with individuals with serious, chronic health problems; consistent with that aging demographic comes heart and liver disease. Despite this fact, twenty percent of jails and prisons do not evaluate all prisoners upon their entry into the correctional system, which means that many health problems also go undiagnosed. Prisoner rights advocates have long maintained--and the study agrees--that prisoners have high incidence of diabetes and liver problems, often due to alcoholism or drug use.

One serious deficiency of correctional health care was not dealt with by this study. If a member of the general public gets ill, he either goes to the doctor, a hospital, or calls an ambulance.  That individual is treated by caring, well-trained medical professionals.  But if a prisoner falls ill, he must navigate the Byzantine system that prescribes Tylenol for serious medical complaints and does its best to delay, discourage, and deny proper medical care. The BJS report does not measure suffering or deaths of prisoners from this "deliberate indifference."

Source: Medical Problems of State and Federal Prisoners and Jail Inmates, 2011-12 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice, February, 2015)

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