Why one physician group is focusing on prison inmate health

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With the U.S currently imprisoning more of its residents than any other industrialized nation, mass incarceration subsequently has a direct impact on public health. Some experts say that due to the size and scale of the incarceration epidemic, it is a vocational duty for physicians to advocate for inmate health justice, especially when it pertains to minors.

At the 2016 annual meeting of the American Medical Association, Nzinga Harrison, MD, a founding member of Physicians for Criminal Justice, argued that mass incarceration fuels chronic disease and mental illness and because of the sheer number of those who will be institutionalized by the American justice system during their lives means improving the health of inmates will improve the health of the general population.

At the meeting, Dr. Harrison laid out the primary goals of the PCJ:

Decriminalizing mental health and drug addiction: 20 percent of inmates suffer from mental illness and up to 60 percent suffer from addiction disorders.

Keeping youths out of adult jails and prisons: The suicide risk of minors in adult jails and penitentiaries is 36 times higher than when these inmates are kept in juvenile facilities.

Providing inmates with adequate physical and mental healthcare: Inmates often come from backgrounds where access to primary care was limited, which fuels higher incidence of chronic and infectious diseases like AIDS and hepatitis C.

Dr. Harrison said, "We can make a change. I hope I have compelled you to joins us and raise your voice so we can minimalize the impact of the criminal justice system on our patients."

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