The examples and perspective in this article may not represent a worldwide view of the subject. You may improve this article, discuss the issue on the talk page, or create a new article, as appropriate. (May 2021) (Learn how and when to remove this message)
Military and MONUSCO medical staff performing medical consultations at a Kabare Territory prison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Prison healthcare is the medical specialty in which healthcare providers care for people in prisons and jails. Prison healthcare is a relatively new specialty that developed alongside the adaption of prisons into modern disciplinary institutions. Enclosed prison populations are particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases, including arthritis, asthma, hypertension, cervical cancer, hepatitis, tuberculosis, AIDS, and HIV, and mental health issues, such as Depression, mania, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.[1] These conditions link prison healthcare to issues of public health, preventive healthcare, and hygiene. Prisoner dependency on provided healthcare raises unique problems in medical ethics.

Scope of field

Prison populations create specific medical needs, based on the communal nature of prison life and differing rates of imprisonment for different demographics. For example, general population ageing has increased the number of elderly prisoners in need of geriatric healthcare.[2]: 223  In addition, treatment for mental health, sexually transmitted infections like HIV, and substance abuse are all important elements of prison healthcare,[3]: 122  as well as knowledge of public health methods.[4]: 317 Screening for STI's in prisons is prevalent and well-organized. Inmates infected with HIV have superior access to treatment and care than the general population. HIV infected prisoners typically see their condition improve while incarcerated and oftentimes reduce their HIV to the point that they have undetectable viral loads.[5]

The separation of prison healthcare from other medical specialties and healthcare systems leads to its isolation and stigmatization as a field,[3]: 120  despite some countries' promise for "equivalence" in healthcare between prison and non-prison patients.[2]: 224 

Healthcare policy and services in prisons recognise the differences in health needs between women and men. Women in prison have specific needs in relation to menstruation,[6] pregnancy, post-partum health, contraception[7] mental health and menopause. The United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (2010) outline standards for care of women offenders and prisoners and are known as the 'Bangkok Rules'.[8]


Print from John Howard's An Account of the Principal Lazarettos in Europe, 1791, showing the floor plan of a prison with a designated infirmary at bottom left

Before 1775, imprisonment was rarely used as a punishment for crime. Since that year, however, incarceration rates have grown exponentially, creating the need for physicians in correctional institutions. Aside from medical care, prisoners were often used by doctors to conduct medical research and conduct teaching, a practice amenable to evidence-based medical practices that prefer scientific analysis of pathology, rather than relying on self-reported patient accounts.[9]: 3,11 [10]: 22 

Prison medicine began, in its most rudimentary form, in Victorian England, under the health reforms promoted by wealthy philanthropist and devout ascetic John Howard and his collaborator, well-to-do Quaker physician John Fothergill.[11] Another early development in the history of prison healthcare was the work of Louis-René Villermé (1782–1863), a physician and pioneering hygienist whose study, Des Prisons, was published in 1820.[12][13] Doctors often had to pass judgment on whether patients were malingering to avoid labor—a practice continued on slave plantations in the US.[9]: 12  The work of Villermé and other French hygienists was an inspiration to German, American, and British public health leaders and spurred an overhaul in the conditions in which prisoners were held. Historically, prison healthcare services have been designed for the majority male prison population [14] and frequently fail to meet basic needs of women.[15]


Prison healthcare is not currently a primary component of medical education, although academic medical centers are major providers of prison healthcare.[9]: 2  In the 21st century, little has been published on curricula for prison healthcare, and few textbooks exist.[4]: 310  Prisons are a complicated, stigmatized environment to practice medicine, which makes it difficult to develop specific training programs for them.[16]: 125  It is also hard for prisoners to receive the best medical care because they  are frequently relocated and often serve short sentences.[17] In one pilot prison-healthcare rotation in the United States, students believed they benefited from exposure to a diverse patient population although the prison's remote location and lack of organized schedule made the experience difficult.[16]: 127 

Ethics and rights

See also: Prisoners' rights

The secondary status of healthcare in prisons and the marginalization and dependency most prisoners experience as a "captive population" pose medical ethics dilemmas for doctors practicing in prisons.[4]: 312,316[9]: 2,8 Feminist theorist and prison abolitionist Andrea J. Pitts argues that the punitive purpose of prisons prevents most doctors from adequately treating and caring for prisoner patients.[10]: 14,27 In addition, the press has recently become interested in uncovering the unequal treatment of prisoners, highlighting how some prisoners receive special treatment. As a result, any major and costly improvements to prison health initiatives may face backlash from the public, who see prisoners as undeserving of such advantages. Doctors' and medical centers' increased reliance on prisons for providing access to patients ultimately creates a dual loyalty problem, as doctors are forced to balance the medical needs of their patients against the institutional needs of prisons and hospitals.[18]: 2  These dilemmas, like organ donation in the United States prison population, make it difficult for doctors to provide patient-centered care in prisons.[18]: 4 

The UN Nelson Mandela Rules hold that prison healthcare should be provided by national health services and not by "prison authorities or judicial institutions".[19]: 349 

Oftentimes, medical research and studies conducted by doctors on prisoners were unethical and led to detrimental health effects for these prisoners. A prime example occurred from 1913 to 1951 when Doctor Leo Stanley[20]—a member of the eugenicist movement—served as the chief surgeon at San Quentin State Prison. Stanley had an interest in the field of endocrinology, and he believed that the effects of aging consequently lead to a higher propensity for criminality, weak morality, and undesirable physical attributes. Stanley thus decided to test his theory that by transplanting testicles from younger men into older men, these older men's manhood would be restored.[21] He began by using the testicles of younger executed prisoners—before moving onto using the testicles of livestock such as goats and deer—and grafting these into the bodies of living San Quentin prisoners. By the end of his time at San Quentin, Stanley performed around 10,000 testicular procedures.

Another example of the unethical experimentation on prisoners is the case of Doctor Albert Kligman, a famous dermatologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is more known for his discovery of Retin-A. Kligman experimented on prisoners for 20 years, starting in 1951. In 1965, Kligman exposed 75 prisoners at Holmesburg Detention Center and House of Correction in Pennsylvania to high doses of dioxin, the main poisonous ingredient in Agent Orange—a military herbicide and defoliant chemical. Kligman exposed these prisoners to a dosage 468 times greater than that in the Dow Chemical Protocol (it is important to note that Dow Chemical paid Kligman to conduct these experiments in order to analyze the effects of this Vietnam War-era chemical warfare agent).[22] While the records of these experiments were destroyed, there is proof that this was not the only time Kligman experimented on prisoners. Kligman, luring prisoners with compensation ranging from $10 to $300, used prisoners as subjects in wound healing studies by exposing them to unapproved products such as deodorants and foot powders.[23] These prisoners were not fully informed about the potential side effects of these experiments and reported experiencing long-term pain, scars, blisters, cysts, and rashes from these experiments.

In many instances, the incarcerated also received prison plastic surgery; approximately 500,000 people were operated on between 1910 and 1995. By 1990, 44 states and eight federal prisons offered plastic surgery in some form. Many of these surgeries were considered "cosmetic" operations, and involved facelifts, blepharoplasties, chin augmentation, scar removal, and more, the goal being to reduce recidivism, based on psychological theories surrounding lookism. They also offered a way to subvert the "ugly laws" that discriminated against people based on their appearance, which intersected with racism and poverty. These surgeries were supported by the government, and, to begin with, by the public.

Another relevant case of the unethical experimentation on prisoners involves the case of Sloan-Kettering Institute oncologist Doctor Chester Southam, who recruited prisoners during the 1950s and 1960s and injected HeLa cancer cells into them in order to learn about how people's immune systems would react when directly exposed to cancer cells.[24] Some of the results include the growth of cancerous nodules in these individuals. Lastly, in a study involving Oregon State Penitentiary prisoners between 1963 and 1973, endocrinologist Carl Heller experimented on prisoners by designing a contraption that would radiate their testicles at varying amounts in order to test what effects radiation has on male reproduction. Prisoners were compensated for their participation, but it was discovered that they were not fully informed about the risks of the experiment—such as significant pain, inflammation, and a risk of acquiring testicular cancer.



Like other countries, prisoners in Ghana are at high risk for HIV and hepatitis C.[19]: 350  The relationship between prisons and the national Ghana Health Service is also weak, leading to disorganized care.

United Kingdom

Within the last several decades, the number of prisoners in England and Wales has almost doubled. As a result, the prisons are overcrowded and the health of the prisoners is at a higher risk.[17]

Health care in prisons has been commissioned by NHS England since 2013, yet it still remains a work in progress. Before that, it was locally commissioned by primary care trusts. Guidelines produced in 2016 by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommended that on admission there should be a health check with confidential testing for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. In 2016, there were more than 4,400 prisoners aged 60 or over in England and Wales, and the number was increasingly rapidly. "They are sicker and more likely to have complex health needs than people of an equivalent age who are living in the community".[25]

The House of Commons Health Select Committee produced a report on prison healthcare in November 2018. They found that difficulties in getting prescribed medication had led to prisoners being hospitalised. They had to make an appointment for medication which outside prison was freely available and they could only get one day's supply at a time. Possession of medication could lead to bullying.[26] Transfers from prison to secure beds in psychiatric hospitals in London were taking up to a year in 2019.[27] In the UK women represent just 5% of the prison population, however 65% of them have depression. This is more than the male population at 37%. 23% of all prisoners who self-harm are women.[14] In 2018 the UK Government published standards for the provision of services to improve the health and well-being of women in prison.[28] The guidelines recognize that interventions must take account of gender as well as circumstances while inside prison and when they are released back into the community particularly with regard to their children. The UK Government estimates that 24% - 31% of women prisoners have one or more dependents.[29]

The UK has practiced some privatization for its prison healthcare. For example, Care UK provides healthcare for people in about 30 prisons.[25] LloydsPharmacy won a contract for pharmacy services in the 15 Scottish prisons in May 2019. The contract for £17 million runs until April 2022.[30]

United States

See also: Incarceration of women in the United States § Healthcare

The Confederate Libby Prison, infamous for its overcrowding and poor health conditions

Before the 1960s, prisons determined what healthcare they would provide with little state or federal oversight, due to the US' "hands-off" doctrine.[10]: 15  Psychological treatment often included moral-uplift bibliotherapy from prison libraries.[31] Modern US prison healthcare arose after events like the Arkansas prison scandal of 1968 revealed the corruption of the Trusty system and unethical medical research conducted on prisoners.[32][33] Spates of prison uprisings and campaigns for prisoners' rights pressured the US prison system to change.[10]: 15–16  In the 1970s, widespread intervention by federal courts improved conditions of confinement, including health care services and public health conditions, and stimulated investment in medical staff, equipment, and facilities to improve the quality of prison and jail medical services.[34] Guidelines issued by the American Public Health Association and the creation of the National Commission on Correctional Health Care also improved prisoner healthcare.[10]: 16 

With increased care came increased costs.[10]: 17  Compared to the UK, the US now uses more partnerships with universities and the private sector to provide healthcare to prison populations.[3]: 125  Cutting costs from public health crises, like mental health, AIDS, tuberculosis, and other infectious diseases within American prisons is a primary motivation.[33] These partnerships are supported for the improvements they make to public health and the training opportunities they provide for medical students, although specialized medical training in prison settings is rare.[9]: 2  The outsourcing of prison healthcare has led to controversies with companies like Corizon or Prison Health Services providing substandard or negligent care to prisoners.[35][33]

Prison is often the first place that people in the USA are able to receive medical treatment that they couldn't afford outside.[36] Inmates often receive more medical treatment in prison than they do in the outside world, largely because many ex-prisoners lose federal benefits such as Medicaid after incarceration. However, upon release, inmates do not continue to receive the treatment they need and oftentimes their condition reverts to pre-incarceration level severity.[5] Although US prisoners are entitled to medical care and receive more treatment than they do in the outside world, the marginal nature of prison healthcare and US mass incarceration means that many prisoners also go untreated .[37] [10]: 17  Following the mass closure of mental health hospitals in the 1960s, Mental health services in US prisons often aren't available for criminals; most prisoners have an untreated mental disorder and psychiatric care or treatment is expensive for the mentally ill.[9]: 2  64 percent of jail inmates, 54 percent of state prisoners, and 45 percent of federal prisoners in the US report having mental health concerns.[38] Health care in American women's prisons often does not meet the needs of women prisoners, such as in the areas of pregnancy and prenatal care, menstrual hygiene and gynecological services, and mental health, especially associated with past trauma or sexual abuse.[39] Despite offering quality medical assistance to certain prisoners with specific illnesses, prison clinics do not meet the needs of all and often presume the continuation of the US prison–industrial complex.[18]: 4 

The Society of Correctional Physicians is a non-profit physician organization founded in August, 1992 as national educational and scientific society for the advancement of correctional medicine, and became the American College of Correctional Physicians in 2015.[40]

See also


  1. ^ Reingle Gonzalez, Jennifer M.; Connell, Nadine M. (December 2014). "Mental Health of Prisoners: Identifying Barriers to Mental Health Treatment and Medication Continuity". American Journal of Public Health. 104 (12): 2328–2333. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2014.302043. ISSN 0090-0036. PMC 4232131. PMID 25322306.
  2. ^ a b Heidari, Raheleh; Wangmo, Tenzin; Galli, Serena; Shaw, David M.; Elger, Bernice S.; Handtkea, Violet; Bretschneider, Wiebke (November 2017). "Accessibility of prison healthcare for elderly inmates, a qualitative assessment". Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. 52: 223–228. doi:10.1016/j.jflm.2017.10.001. PMID 29028567.
  3. ^ a b c Watson, Roger; Stimpson, Anne; Hostick, Tony (February 2004). "Prison health care: a review of the literature". International Journal of Nursing Studies. 41 (2): 119–128. doi:10.1016/s0020-7489(03)00128-7. PMID 14725776.
  4. ^ a b c Haley, Heather-Lyn; Ferguson, Warren; Brewer, Arthur; Hale, Janet (2009-10-26). "Correctional Health Curriculum Enhancement Through Focus Groups". Teaching and Learning in Medicine. 21 (4): 310–317. doi:10.1080/10401330903228513. PMID 20183358. S2CID 13392848.
  5. ^ a b Nijhawan, Ank E. (October 2016). "Infectious Diseases and the Criminal Justice System: A Public Health Perspective". The American Journal of the Medical Sciences. 352 (4): 399–407. doi:10.1016/j.amjms.2016.05.020. ISSN 0002-9629. PMC 5119815. PMID 27776722.
  6. ^ Lee, Jean. "5 pads for 2 cellmates: Period inequity remains a problem in prisons". USA TODAY. Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  7. ^ Kronmeyer, Bob (2022-01-14). "Female contraception policies at US prisons and jails". Contemporary Ob/Gyn Journal. Vol 67 No 02. 67 (2).
  8. ^ "UN Bangkok Rules". Penal Reform International. Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  9. ^ a b c d e f Glenn, Jason E.; Bennett, Alina M.; Hester, Rebecca J.; Tajuddin, Nadeem N.; Hashmi, Ahmar (December 2020). ""It's like heaven over there": medicine as discipline and the production of the carceral body". Health & Justice. 8 (1): 5. doi:10.1186/s40352-020-00107-5. PMC 7007681. PMID 32036547.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g Pitts, Andrea J. (27 August 2018). "Examining Carceral Medicine through Critical Phenomenology". IJFAB: International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics. 11 (2): 14–35. doi:10.3138/ijfab.2017.08.11. S2CID 149759420.
  11. ^ Payne, Joseph Frank (1889). "Fothergill, John (1712-1780)" . Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 20. pp. 66–68.
  12. ^ Villermé, Louis-René (1820). "On Prisons as They Are and as They Should Be by Louis-René Villermé 1820". Retrieved 30 May 2021.
  13. ^ Goyau, Pierre-Louis-Théophile-Georges (1912). "Louis-René Villermé" . Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15.
  14. ^ a b "Improving the health and wellbeing for women in prison - UK Health Security Agency". Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  15. ^ Sawyer, Wendy (2018-01-09). "The Gender Divide: Tracking women's state prison growth". Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  16. ^ a b Alemagno, Sonia A.; Wilkinson, Margaret; Levy, Leonard (February 2004). "Medical Education Goes to Prison: Why?". Academic Medicine. 79 (2): 123–127. doi:10.1097/00001888-200402000-00005. PMID 14744711.
  17. ^ a b Ginn, Stephen (2012). "The Challenge of Providing Prison Healthcare". BMJ: British Medical Journal. 345 (7875): 26–28. ISSN 0959-8138. JSTOR 23278732.
  18. ^ a b c DiZoglio, Joseph David; Telma, Kate (23 April 2021). "Proposing Abolition Theory for Carceral Medical Education". Journal of Medical Humanities. 43 (2): 335–342. doi:10.1007/s10912-021-09695-1. PMID 33890209. S2CID 233369940.
  19. ^ a b Baffoe-Bonnie, Terrylyna; Ntow, Samuel Kojo; Awuah-Werekoh, Kwasi; Adomah-Afari, Augustine (5 December 2019). "Access to a quality healthcare among prisoners – perspectives of health providers of a prison infirmary, Ghana". International Journal of Prisoner Health. 15 (4): 349–365. doi:10.1108/IJPH-02-2019-0014. PMID 31532341. S2CID 201968104.
  20. ^ Blue, Ethan (2009-05-01). "The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951". Pacific Historical Review. 78 (2): 210–241. doi:10.1525/phr.2009.78.2.210.
  21. ^ Blue, Ethan (2009-05-01). "The Strange Career of Leo Stanley: Remaking Manhood and Medicine at San Quentin State Penitentiary, 1913-1951". Pacific Historical Review. 78 (2): 210–241. doi:10.1525/phr.2009.78.2.210.
  22. ^ Reiter, Keramet (April 2009). "Experimentation on prisoners: persistent dilemmas in rights and regulations" (PDF). California Law Review. 97 (2): 501–566. Archived from the original (PDF) on 8 September 2015.
  23. ^ Goodman, Howard. "Studying prison experiments Research: For 20 years, a dermatologist used the inmates of a Philadelphia prison as the willing subjects of tests on shampoo, foot powder, deodorant, and later, mind-altering drugs and dioxin". Retrieved 2021-10-13.
  24. ^ Vernon, Leonard (2020-05-29). "Tuskegee Syphilis Study not Americas only Medical Scandal Chester M. Southam, MD, Henrietta Lacks, and the Sloan-Kettering Research Scandal". Online Journal of Health Ethics. 16 (2). doi:10.18785/ojhe.1602.03. S2CID 226501324.
  25. ^ a b "Prisoners 'should get same healthcare as general population'". Guardian. 2 November 2016. Retrieved 3 December 2017.
  26. ^ "Prisoners hospitalised because of lack of access to medicines, MPs find". The Pharmaceutical Journal. 5 November 2018. Retrieved 24 February 2024.
  27. ^ "Prisoners face 'year-long' waits for hospital beds". Health Service Journal. 28 May 2019. Retrieved 8 July 2019.
  28. ^ "Women in prison: standards to improve health and wellbeing". GOV.UK. Retrieved 2022-03-13.
  29. ^ "Gender Specific Standards to Improve Health and Wellbeing for Women in Prison in England" (PDF). Public Health England. 2018.
  30. ^ "Lloyds given £17m contract to run pharmacy services in Scottish prisons". Pharmaceutical Journal. 3 May 2019. Retrieved 9 June 2019.
  31. ^ Sweeney, Megan (2010). Reading is my window : books and the art of reading in women's prisons. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-0807871003.
  32. ^ Woodward, Colin Edward (2018-03-22). "The Arkansas prison scandal". Arkansas Times. Retrieved 30 May 2021.
  33. ^ a b c Zielbauer, Paul von; Plambeck, Joseph (27 February 2005). "As Health Care in Jails Goes Private, 10 Days Can Be a Death Sentence". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 19 November 2018. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
  34. ^ Paris JE (February 2008). "Why Prisoners Deserve Health Care". AMA Journal of Ethics. 10 (2): 113–115. doi:10.1001/virtualmentor.2008.10.2.msoc1-0802. PMID 23206825. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
  35. ^ Matt York (26 February 2018). "How Bad is Prison Health Care? Depends on Who's Watching". The Marshall Project. Associated Press. Retrieved 30 April 2021.
  36. ^ Fraser, Andrew (2007). "Primary health care in prisons". In Møller, Lars; et al. (eds.). Health in Prisons: A WHO Guide to the Essentials in Prison Health. WHO Regional Office Europe. ISBN 9789289072809.
  37. ^ Drucker, Ernest (2011). A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America. The New Press. pp. 115–116. ISBN 9781595586056.
  38. ^ Collier, Lorna (October 2014). "Incarceration nation". Monitor on Psychology. 45 (9). American Psychological Association. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  39. ^ Sufrin, Carolyn; Kolbi-Molinas, Alexa; Roth, Rachel (December 2015). "Reproductive Justice, Health Disparities And Incarcerated Women in the United States". Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. 47 (4): 213–219. doi:10.1363/47e3115. PMID 26098183.
  40. ^ "American College of Correctional Physicians". Retrieved 2015-10-26.

Further reading