January 16, 2009 / 12:17 AM / 10 years ago

Many inmates sick, access to care poor: study

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Inmates in U.S. prisons and jails have rates of serious illness that far exceed those of the general population and many lack access to healthcare, researchers said on Thursday.

They found that 800,000 inmates — about 40 percent of the U.S. prison population — have a chronic medical problem such as diabetes, asthma or heart or kidney problems.

And more than 20 percent of sick inmates in state prisons and 13.9 percent in federal prisons had not seen a doctor or a nurse since their incarceration began.

“A substantial percentage of inmates have serious medical needs. Yet many of them don’t get even minimal care medical care,” said Dr. Andrew Wilper of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, whose study appears in the American Journal of Public Health.

Wilper did the research while at the Cambridge Health Alliance and Harvard Medical School in Massachusetts. He and colleagues analyzed data from a 2002 survey of inmates in local jails and a 2004 survey of prison inmates.

They found a far higher incidence of chronic disease among inmates. Compared to other Americans of the same age, state prison inmates were 31 percent more likely to have asthma, 55 percent more likely to have diabetes, and 90 percent more likely to have suffered a heart attack.

Access to care was worst in local jails and best in federal prisons. One-quarter of jail inmates who had suffered severe injuries had received no medical attention, versus 12 percent in state prisons and 8 percent in federal prisons.

The researchers also looked at mental illness. While about a quarter of inmates had a history of chronic mental illness like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression or anxiety, two-thirds of them were off treatment at the time of their arrest.

Only after their imprisonment did most of these inmates receive treatment.

A study this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association found inmates with drug problems are not getting adequate treatment.

The study by researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, found about half of all prisoners — including some guilty of non-drug offenses — are dependent on drugs. Yet less than 20 percent of inmates suffering from drug abuse or dependence get formal treatment.

They said the criminal justice system was in a position to encourage drug abusers to enter and remain in treatment, disrupting the cycle of drug use and crime.

Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Will Dunham and Xavier Briand

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