No matter how you feel about incarceration, it’s a dangerous business. Inmates have high rates of serious transmissible diseases which aren’t turned into the warden when they are released. Around 2.5 million people are held in American correctional facilities. HIV rates for imprisoned men 1.6% and for women is 2.4% (compared to about 0.4% among Americans as a whole). About 4.5% of inmates reported sexual victimization. Of the facilities that provide hepatitis B vaccination, 65% target “high risk” groups only. Tuberculosis rates are also very high. This is just a sampling of the horrifying health conditions in jails and prisons.
Prisons are a set up for the transmission of infectious diseases, and when prisoners are released, they return these infections to the public at large. This is one of the many reasons to pay better attention to health care in prisons.
There has been a recent brouhaha about some corrections facilities receiving swine flu vaccines before “the public”. Swine flu vaccines are being distributed based on risk and need. Prisons are a high risk environment. If influenza sweeps through a prison, not only will there be human suffering, but imagine trying to care for a facility full of sick convicts. The potential for chaos in an already dangerous environment is sobering.
What this really betrays is our own prejudices. First, it may seem like flu vaccination is a zero sum game—supplies are limited to an extent, and we must prioritize, but vaccinating one population does not automatically put another at risk. Second, we aren’t talking about giving free HBO to convicts, but protecting a vulnerable population from a dangerous infectious disease. When we incarcerate people we are responsible for their care. We may not want to keep them comfortable and happy, but we must make every effort to keep them alive and healthy. The outcry over this is frankly disgusting.