Prison watch tower.

Government Report Finds Care Deficits for Pregnant People in Federal Custody

By Elyssa Spitzer

Pregnant and postpartum people in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and U.S. Marshals Service receive care directed by policies that fail to meet national standards, according to a report recently issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). 

This, despite the fact that, incarcerated women are among the most vulnerable people, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In the GAO report’s terms, incarcerated women: “often have medical and mental health conditions that make their pregnancies a high risk for adverse outcomes, which is compounded by inconsistent access to adequate, quality pregnancy care and nutrition while in custody.”

Notably, the report found that the BOP and U.S. Marshals’ policies failed to satisfy the national standards — to say nothing of the gaps that may exist between written policy and the care that is, in fact, provided. Read More

Up close shot of an orange prison jumpsuit

COVID-19 and Women in the US Criminal Legal System

By Cynthia Golembeski, Carolyn Sufrin, Brie Williams, Precious Bedell, Sherry Glied, Ingrid Binswanger, Donna Hylton, Tyler Winkelman, and Jaimie Meyer

Health and economic inequities exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately harm women, and particularly women of color, involved in the criminal legal system.

Structural racism, sexism, poverty, substandard healthcare in jails and prisons, and the health effects of incarceration worsen women’s health. The pandemic only compounds these effects. Often overlooked or less visible, incarcerated women are at significantly increased risk of acquiring infectious illness, including COVID-19.

Alternatives to incarceration, and care continuity for chronic health conditions, including substance-use and psychiatric disorders, which disproportionately affect women, are necessary within the current pandemic and beyond.

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Austin, Tx/USA - May 23, 2020: Family members of prisoners held in the state prison system demonstrate at the Governor's Mansion for their release on parole due to the danger of Covid-19 in prisons.

Jails and COVID-19: An Overlooked Public Health Crisis in Philadelphia

By Katherine Zuk

Since the start of the pandemic, jails and prisons have continuously struggled to stop the spread of COVID-19 cases.

The novel coronavirus has been ravaging the U.S. since late February, with over 6 million cases and 185,092 deaths. Emerging data shows alarmingly high rates of COVID-19 in jails and prisons nationwide, including over 85% of inmates testing positive at two facilities in Ohio. As of September 3, there have been at least 180,045 cases and 928 deaths in prisons alone – and many fear these numbers are severely underreported.

Philadelphia offers an unfortunate case study.

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corridor with hospital beds

Hospitals Bear the Costs of Detention and Incarceration

By Blake N. Shultz and Pooja Agrawal

While individuals with recent criminal justice involvement represent only 4.2% of the population, they make up 8.5% of all emergency department (ED) expenditures, which translates to an additional $5.2 billion in annual spending across the health care sector.

The federal government has complete control over access to medical care for incarcerated individuals and immigrants in detention facilities, and is primarily responsible for the quality of the sanitation, nutrition, and shelter accommodations. Despite this level of control, conditions in many detention facilities and prisons are exceptionally poor.

Over eighty percent of recently released prisoners are uninsured, and upon re-entry into society they struggle to obtain quality medical care for both pre-existing conditions and those that may have been caused or exacerbated by detention.  As they often do not have a medical home, upon release many will present to emergency departments (EDs) for their health care needs, and, because of the low rates of insurance coverage, hospitals are left to pick up the bill for the gaps in care created by the government’s deficiencies.

The disaggregation of government detention facilities and financial responsibility for downstream health care costs of released individuals creates a “regulatory moral hazard,” in which the government has little incentive to invest in the health and health care of incarcerated and detained individuals. In the absence of federal reform incentivizing investment and reducing cost-shifting to the health care sector, hospital systems should build interdisciplinary care teams focused on formerly incarcerated and detained individuals while investing in comprehensive, community-based health care.

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alcatraz, san francisco

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Efforts to Release People in Custody

By Phebe Hong

The first death of a federal inmate from COVID-19 occurred on March 28, at a prison in Oakdale, Louisiana. The inmate had been incarcerated for 13 years for a nonviolent drug charge. At least four other infected inmates have died at the same institution.

The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on prisons and jails, where proper social distancing is nearly impossible to maintain.

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Mental Health First Aid Training in Prisons, Police Departments, and the Presidential Election

By Wendy S. Salkin

It has been widely reported and acknowledged that many incarcerated Americans live with mental illness. In 2014, the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriffs’ Association published The Treatment of Persons with Mental Illness in Prisons and Jails: A State Survey, a joint report that included the following findings:

  • In 2012, there were estimated to be 356,268 inmates with severe mental illness in prisons and jails. There were also approximately 35,000 patients with severe mental illness in state psychiatric hospitals. Thus, the number of mentally ill persons in prisons and jails was 10 times the number remaining in state hospitals.
  • In 44 of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, a prison or jail in that state holds more individuals with serious mental illness than the largest remaining state psychiatric hospital. For example, in Ohio, 10 state prisons and two county jails each hold more mentally ill inmates than does the largest remaining state hospital.

Similarly widely reported and acknowledged is that prisons often either cannot or simply do not serve the mental health treatment needs of those housed within their walls. As Ana Swanson of The Washington Post observed:

Unsurprisingly, many prisons are poorly equipped to properly deal with mental illness. Inmates with mental illnesses are more likely than other to be held in solitary confinement, and many are raped, commit suicide, or hurt themselves.

Solitary confinement is often used as a means of separating inmates living with mental illness from the rest of a prison population. As Jeffrey L. Metzner and Jamie Fellner reported in their March 2010 article, “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for Medical Ethics”: Read More