The paper, published in the most recent edition of the journal Health Affairs, argues that too many prisoners return to their communities with debilitating diseases -- diseases that burden the economy and exacerbate public healthcare resources.
“The general public doesn’t pay attention to what’s going on behind bars, but this is very important if you are concerned about the health of our population and health care costs,” said Dr. Josiah Rich, lead author and professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University.
What became a formal paper of both warnings and recommendations concerning long-term risks of a lackluster prison healthcare system, began as a discussion among scientists at a workshop convened by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine in 2012.
In the paper, scientists point out that 40 percent of prisoners leave jail with a serious medical condition, most of which are first diagnosed behind bars. Seventy percent require substance abuse help. And four out of five don't have health insurance, preventing them from getting the help they need.
What that means, the researchers argue, is that these untreated health conditions -- such as addiction -- often land struggling convicts back in jail, further burdening public resources. What's more, minor conditions left undiagnosed or untreated become costlier as they blossom into more serious conditions down the road.
“Prisons and jails are necessary for the protection of society,” Rich and his co-authors wrote. “For decades, though, the U.S. health and criminal justice systems have operated in a vicious cycle that in essence punishes illness and poverty in ways that, in turn, generate further illness and poverty.”
The primary recommendation made by the health officials is to make a more concerted effort at finding alternatives to prison. But the scientists also offer suggestions on how to better deliver care to prisoners during and after time in carceration.