The Healthcare System in US Prisons is in Drastic Need of Improvement

Health Policy Brief #145 | By: Inijah Quadri | January 25, 2022

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Policy Summary

Getting ill in prison is a bad idea. Because of years of underfunding and privatization, the medical treatment provided to those who are jailed is deplorable.

Almost four times as many convicts over the age of 55 are in prison now as there were at the beginning of this century. Because of this, the prevalence of diabetes and heart disease – to name just a few – has skyrocketed. Given their high rates of addiction, young offenders in prison aren’t exactly the healthiest of all groups. Hepatitis C infection rates are 35 percent higher in prisons than in the general population, despite the fact that inmates make up just 1% of the population. As research explains, “They are the most costly and the illest people in the population.”

In the last decade or two, most states have outsourced jail health care to private organizations. That creates a motivation for cost-saving measures. As such, there are several tales of people dying in vain as it might take weeks for an inmate to visit a doctor after complaining about the same symptoms many times. True, convicts have tried to escape during medical transports to hospitals, but that is not enough reason for guards and other personnel to typically assume that detainees are lying about being unwell.

Chronic health issues, mental illness, and drug addiction are more prevalent among inmates and detainees in immigration facilities. Even before, as well as during and after jail or detention, people often get subpar medical care. This only serves to exacerbate their predicament.

Policy Analysis

Health needs of prisoners can be addressed through policies like expanding access to substance use disorder treatment, family planning, and mental health services, all of which are supported by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). As incarceration and detention are both harmful to health, the AAFP advocates for sentencing nonviolent criminals and drug possession offenders to shorter terms of imprisonment and abolishing detention for people seeking refuge in the United States on lawful grounds.

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) supports efforts to improve the current bail system and  reduce the negative health outcomes of those awaiting trial in prisons and jails. Providing better health care in prisons and detention centers and enhancing the coordination of services after release are two possible interventions that might enhance the health of those who are jailed.

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Volunteers in correctional or detention facilities can help family physicians improve the health of those behind bars, as can supporting collaborations between those institutions and community health services, integrated care models, and more connections to resources for housing, employment, and mental health.


Prison health, according to some, would be improved if it were integrated into the local health care system. Whether it’s opioid addiction or an infectious disease outbreak, communities aren’t immune to what occurs inside their jails. 

However, the majority of non-prisoners don’t recognize how health issues in prisons influence their own lives. For individuals who society deems to be deserving of punishment, therapy may never be a high priority.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

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American College of Correctional Physicians (

National Correctional Health Care Commission (



The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights (

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