Prisoners, public at health risk

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High rates of disease and illness among inmates in the nation’s jails and prisons, coupled with inadequate funding for correctional health care, has put the nation’s 2.2 million prisoners at risk, along with corrections officers and the public, a report said yesterday.

Every year, according to a report by the 21-member Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, more than 1.5 million people are released from jails and prisons nationwide carrying life-threatening contagious diseases, and another 350,000 inmates have serious mental illnesses.

“Protecting public health and public safety, reducing human suffering and limiting the financial cost of untreated illness depends on adequately funded, good quality correctional health care,” the report said. “Unfortunately, most correctional systems are set up to fail.

“They have to care for a sick population on shoestring budgets and with little support from community health-care providers and public health authorities,” it said.

The commission, co-chaired by former Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, is based on a lengthy investigation and hearings, which included testimony from corrections professionals, prison monitors and litigators, former prisoners, scholars and others. The inquiry focused on the “crucial role of oversight and accountability” in creating safe conditions in U.S. prisons and jails, and on the nature and prevalence of gang violence.

“The questions ‘who’s watching’ and ‘who’s responsible’ are at the beginning and end of dealing with all of the problems we’ve examined,” Mr. Katzenbach said.

The report also concluded:

• Violence remains a serious problem in the nation’s prisons and jails, with “disturbing evidence” of assaults and patterns of violence in some U.S. correctional facilities. It said corrections officers reported a near-constant fear of being assaulted, and prisoners recounted gang violence, rapes and beatings.

• Violence and abuse are not inevitable, but the majority of prisons and many jails nationwide hold more people than they can accommodate safely and effectively, creating a degree of disorder and tension almost certain to erupt into violence.

• Because lawmakers have reduced funding for programming in the country’s prisons and jails, inmates are largely inactive and unproductive.

• The increasing use of high-security segregation is counterproductive, often causing violence inside facilities and contributing to recidivism after release. People who pose no threat and those who are mentally ill are “languishing for months or years” in high-security units and supermax prisons.

• Better safety inside prisons and jails depends on changing the institutional culture, which cannot be accomplished without enhancing the corrections professional at all levels. Because the exercise of power is a defining characteristic of correctional facilities, there is a constant potential for abuse.

The report will be presented today at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime, corrections and victims’ rights.

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