How Prison Health Care Could Reduce Rearrest Rates

By Christopher Zoukis

Recidivism is a growing problem in the United States.  There are many factors that cause released inmates to return to a life of crime and, eventual, incarceration.  Fewer opportunities, lack of access to prison education, lack of sustainable employment, and other factors contribute to America's sky high recidivism rates.  But another factor, which is not often considered, is also worth a hard look: health care in American prisons. 

Image courtesy www.pewtrusts.org-

Every year approximately 600,000 U.S. inmates are released from correctional custody.  Many of these men and women are released from prison with chronic physical or mental illness.  Few of those released have access to meaningful private health care or are knowledgeable about the public health care system.  Many of the physically and mentally ill former prisoners end up becoming a drain on local, state, and national economies simply because they don't have the capability to improve their own mental or physical health and thus can't live a productive, respectable life.

Why Lack of Health Care May Increase Recidivism

Due to the aforementioned issues, there appears to be a correlation between recidivism and access to meaningful prison healthcare; a lack of prison healthcare appears to result in enhanced recidivism rates, and the reverse is also true.  Furthermore, there is a decrease in rearrests for those in low income communities who have access to healthcare.  One is left to wonder, how come enhanced access to healthcare results in reduced re-arrest and recidivism rates?

  • Employment Potential

Prison time is already seen as a scarlet letter against potential employment.  Those with criminal histories that are also suffering from health issues are going to struggle further, even more than traditional ex-cons.  Working in manual labor positions is unlikely for these disabled persons, as is finding odd jobs or under-the-counter positions.  According to http://prisoneducation.com, what little employment potential they may have had goes out the window when it becomes apparent that they are more trouble, due to their disability, than they're worth.

  • Drug Addiction

Chronic physical and mental health problems cause pain.  Without treatment options or education, the option many released inmates turn to are drugs.  While some might do so to ease physical pain, others naturally gravitate to substance abuse.  Regardless of if they take drugs as part of their addiction, to ease actual physical pain, or a combination of the two, ex-prisoners who use illegal substances return to prison at a much higher rate than those who stay clean.

  • Mental Health Treatment

America's prisons are emotionally scarring places for healthy inmates, not to mention the many prisoners who are suffering from diagnosed and undiagnosed mental health issues.  While poor mental health does not necessarily indicate a higher risk of recidivism, studies have shown that mental health problems combined with other socio-economic issues may put former prisoners at enhanced risk of recidivating.

Perhaps what makes this an even more significant issue is that many of these health problems -- and mental health problems, for that matter -- are either created by, or first diagnosed, while the offender is in prison.  Many inmates with mental health problems were undiagnosed and untreated prior to their term of incarceration, only to end up in jail after self-medicating, abusing drugs (which could be a side effect of mental illness), or uncontrollable unlawful behavior.  Many chronic health problems are caused, or further aggravated, by a troubled and overcrowded prison system with little access to healthy food, poor prison healthcare, close quarters, and a considerable amount of violence and conflict.

Making Changes to the Prison System

Those that believe inmates should be punished severely should still be in favor of better healthcare in prison because the effects radiate to the rest of society when the inmates are released from custody, which amounts to 95 percent of U.S. inmates, according to http://prisonlawblog.com.  These mentally and physically ill inmates devour available prison resources, abuse substances at an increasingly significant rate, create more victims due to lack of self-control and other factors, and stand in the way of a safe and healthy society.

Better healthcare for prison inmates, both in and outside of prison, should be a priority for those that are looking to improve their communities and decrease crime, recidivism, and victimization.  No matter what one's stance on prisons and crime control policies, everyone can agree that quality prison healthcare is the right answer.