New CA Report on Prison Healthcare

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“Good prison health is good public health,” explains Jack Beck, Director of the Prison Visiting Project and principal author of the new CA report, Healthcare in New York Prisons, 2004-2007. Undertaken at the request of the New York State Assembly’s Health and Correction Committees, the study represents the most comprehensive analysis of medical services in a single state’s prison system ever prepared.

Including charts and appendices, the report aggregates and analyzes information gathered during 19 monitoring visits to New York State prisons over the course of three years. The CA’s concerns about prison healthcare are longstanding. In the eight years since we last issued a report on the subject, the Department of Correctional Services (DOCS) has made some significant improvements in the provision of medical care, including implementing new clinical practice guidelines on conditions such as hepatitis C and asthma, updating existing practice guidelines on HIV and diabetes, reducing medical staffing vacancies that had persisted for several years, and increasing staffing levels even while the prison population declined.

Nonetheless, many problems identified in our previous report persist. At most prisons the CA visited, healthcare accounted for more incarcerated individual grievances than any other issue. In some prisons, it can take months to see a doctor, routine care is poor, access to specialty services is delayed, and follow-up is inadequate. Many incarcerated persons with chronic infections, such as HIV, are not diagnosed, delaying critical treatment. Of high concern to the CA is the lack of Department of Health (DOH) oversight in state prisons; unlike other medical facilities in New York State, DOH is not required to monitor DOCS healthcare. In addition, poorly trained medical personnel, vacancies, and low staff salaries can negatively affect the quality of medical care provided.

The study makes concrete recommendations on how the Governor, DOCS and the Legislature could improve the healthcare in the state’s prisons, including requiring DOH oversight of care, improving care for incarcerated people with chronic diseases, and enhancing quality improvement programs. The CA has released the report to DOCS, DOH, and key policymakers in the New York State Assembly and Senate’s Health Committee.