Skip to content

EDITORIAL: Prisons in peril: Unjust health conditions plague US prisons

The hidden crisis of prison health care kills hundreds of people in the U.S. every year. – Photo by Elliot Dong

The condition of health care in prisons is a silent crisis that often goes unrecognized behind the barren, bleak walls of captivity. This critical problem, usually obscured by more general discussions about criminal justice, affects thousands and influences both their stay behind bars and their reintegration into society.

Prisoners are constantly denied proper health care and forced to live in abysmal conditions. Last week, an HIV-positive inmate in California died after being denied medication for his condition for two entire months.

This kind of story is not uncommon among prisoners, and their treatment by the U.S. government is deeply troubling, as it reflects the very essence of our nation. Our treatment of the most vulnerable populations of society defines our core values because they have no one to shield them from harm.

Prison health care faces a multitude of pressing challenges, each stemming from societal and systemic issues that reach far beyond the walls of the prisons themselves. One of the most dire of these problems is overcrowding.

Facilities that are designed to contain a certain number of prisoners are often pushed far beyond these limits. In 2021, the maximum occupancy was exceeded in more than 118 countries, in some cases by a rate of more than 200 percent.

The overcrowding of prisons also leads to a lack of adequate medical resources and staffing. Despite the 1976 Supreme Court decision stating that deliberate indifference of medical needs constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, hundreds of prisoners die annually from just that.

In the U.S., more than 20 percent of inmates in state-run institutions with chronic medical conditions do not receive the necessary care, and this figure escalates to almost 70 percent in local jails. Considering that the incarcerated population is prone to chronic health issues, the lack of adequate care can have fatal consequences.

This creates a cascade of problems, from the spread of infectious diseases to the immense strain placed on the already limited health care resources. In the Los Angeles County Jail, for example, individuals suffering from severe mental illnesses were restrained to chairs for days on end, detainees were forced to defecate in trash cans, and many were denied basic health care needs such as the administration of necessary medication.

Furthermore, mental health is a pressing concern. Unfortunately, the resources for mental health care in prisons are often grossly inadequate, leading to a cycle of unaddressed mental illness that can exacerbate criminal behavior and impact post-release life.

In addition to having a disproportionately detrimental impact on those suffering from mental illness, prison populations wrongfully overrepresent members of Black, Latino and Indigenous communities, groups that already face inequities in access to mental health services.

For incarcerated women, the situation is notably grave. In the U.S., it is estimated that each year, around 58,000 pregnant individuals are admitted to jails and prisons. Although some policies differ, "women are frequently shackled with handcuffs, leg irons and/or waist chains" throughout various parts of the birthing process.

Compounding these issues is the government's usage of privatized health care companies for prisoners. Prisons that private companies face higher death rates than those that do not simply because the benefactors of this multibillion-dollar industry are financially incentivized to provide inadequate and subpar care.

The reason for this is that these companies are often paid a fixed rate per person, no matter how much health care that person requires. This means that the money the company does not spend on care becomes its profit. Not only does this benefit the companies themselves, but it also benefits the prisons that hire them, as it places a limit on their legal liability.

Addressing the multitude of challenges in prison health care is not just a matter of improving conditions for inmates but a necessary step toward ensuring a just and humane penal system. In order to do this, authorities must consider two primary solutions: decreasing the populations in jails and prisons and enhancing oversight measures.

Many people may be opposed to making such changes due to the population of people they would be benefitting. Why better fund free health care for incarcerated people (the only portion of the U.S. population that is guaranteed this right) when many of those who have not broken the law cannot afford health care for themselves?

Diverging beyond even the legal and public health-related reasons, the answer remains simple: All prisoners, no matter the crime, are human beings.

As the next generation of voters and people who will rely on this health care system, it is our responsibility to ensure its quality. We must strive for a system we can take pride in, one that offers safety and security to all.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 155th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

Related Articles

Join our newsletterSubscribe