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The Health of Our Prisons

August 2004

By Jon VanZile

LE Magazine August 2004
The Health of Our Prisons
By Jon VanZile

The results were a broad and damning indictment of nearly every single aspect of the prison’s health care operation. Doctors’ orders were ignored. Prescriptions were withheld. Chronic conditions were never diagnosed, or if they were, they were never treated. Acute care was nonexistent. Prisoners were denied outside medical care. Suicidal prisoners who literally begged for help were dismissed by guards only to kill themselves within hours.

“We find that persons confined suffer harm or the risk of serious harm from deficiencies in the facility’s provision of medical and mental health care, suicide prevention, protection of inmates from harm, fire safety, and sanitation,” the investigators concluded. “In addition, the facility fails to provide inmates sufficient access to the courts and opportunity to seek redress of grievances.”8

This flawed system was a clear violation of the prisoners’ constitutional rights, according to the investigation. And the blame lay squarely on Physicians Network Associates, a private company that had been contracted to deliver health care services to the prison.

The investigation provides a chilling glimpse into the world of modern prisons. According to the report, only 37% of prisoners received a full health screening. Among that minority, prisoners who were identified with “serious medical needs” were not referred for health care services. Amazingly, not a single prisoner was referred to health services for a chronic health condition.8

Finally, as with Robert Treadway at Yazoo City, the investigation found that physicians did not send prisoners for outside care quickly enough. And just as bad, outside doctors’ orders were routinely ignored once inmates were back in their cells.

The report called for a sweeping, 53-point overhaul in the way the prison was operated. The attorney general’s office threatened to file a lawsuit if the conditions were not met in 49 days.8

Increasingly, lawsuits are the only way for prisoners to assert the basic human rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution. So far, successful class-action lawsuits alleging medical neglect have been filed in California, Michigan, and Utah. Groups in other states are preparing to file. Even in Yazoo City, a local attorney is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of a prisoner.

Rather than forcing change, however, these lawsuits have had the opposite effect. Instead of providing the rights that decency and the Constitution demand, the federal government passed the 1996 Prison Litigation Reform Act. This legislation made it harder for federal courts to guarantee constitutional conditions in federal prisons. According to the ACLU, now “many states are following the

federal government’s example and enacting laws that create similar obstacles for prisoners in the state court system.”

If the prisoners cannot protect themselves, and the public refuses to be shocked by the grim statistics and images pouring from America’s prisons, there can be only one end to this story: a national disaster.

One possible scenario is depressingly easy to imagine. Under the current system, millions of people will continue to be convicted for nonviolent crimes, especially drug offenses. They will be given long sentences in prisons that are literally bursting at the cell doors. They will be subjected to crowded conditions, sexual and criminal predators, and infection with the deadly diseases that run rampant through our prisons. Then, with inadequate medical care, they will be released onto our streets, sick and corrupted.

Unless something is done, our prisons will continue act as incubators of violence and disease, and before long, we will all pay a price for our neglect.


The purpose of this article is to report on what is wrong with American prisons. We interviewed dozens of former prison inmates and received different opinions about the quality of health care afforded in prisons. In some instances, former inmates rated the health care as very good. Sadly, however, this was not the typical response. Life Extension members are keenly aware of the importance of good health care, including both prevention and treatment. Various agencies of the federal government publish reports on what Americans should be doing to avoid the infirmities of aging, yet these standards are ignored in most federal prisons.

In today’s world, it is easy to document the life-span-shortening effects of poor medical care. Failure to deliver quality health care to those convicted of political crimes represents punishment that extends well beyond the deprivation of individual liberty that imprisonment is supposed to exemplify.

Do not think that you are immune to being incarcerated. If you drive a car, operate a business, or work for a living, you are especially vulnerable. Overzealous prosecutors today no longer need to show that you had “intent” to commit a crime. If you exceed the speed limit and are involved in a wreck that kills someone, you could be indicted for vehicular manslaughter, even though you had no intent to harm anyone. The fact that you broke the law by speeding is enough to put you away in a nasty state prison for many decades.

In an unprecedented case, a drunken passenger was convicted of vehicular manslaughter because he gave his car keys to his drunken brother to drive. The state argued that the inebriated passenger and drunken driver were equally at fault for the accident. Since two people were killed in this tragedy, the passenger is facing up to 30 years in jail. Prosecutors said they wanted to “test” this new legal “theory” that a drunken passenger is as guilty as a drunken driver. Do not even consider driving drunk—you could get life in prison in some states, even if you did not cause the accident.

There are now so many regulations that business owners fear being arrested for all kinds of imaginary crimes. The government has criminalized normal human behavior to the point that making the proper business decision could easily cause you to wind up in jail, even though you may not have even known that your actions broke the “law.”



1. Available at: Accessed June 7, 2004.

2. National Commission on Correctional Health Care. “The Health Status of Soon-to-be-Released Inmates: A Report to Congress.” March 2002.

3. Available at: Accessed June 7, 2004.

4. Treadway Robert (#10590-076), Request for Administrative Remedy, Bureau of Prisons document, issued January 20, 2004.

5. Available at: Accessed June 7, 2004.

6. Fazlollah M. Inmates will get care for hepatitis. Philadelphia Inquirer. October 31, 2002.

7. Available at: Accessed June 7, 2004.

8. Correspondence from Ralph Boyd Jr., assistant attorney general for New Mexico, to Jack Sullivan, county commission chairman.
March 6, 2003.