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Bags hang from a stainless steel IV stand
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

Americans are no strangers to the complexities and burdens of the country’s health care system. In prison, many of these issues are exacerbated.

In the 1976 Supreme Court case Estelle v. Gamble, the court held that failure to provide adequate health care to incarcerated people as a result of “deliberate indifference” is unconstitutional. The court cited the Eighth Amendment in this decision, writing that such indifference constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Nonetheless, nearly five decades after the verdict, more than 1 in 5 people incarcerated in state facilities lack treatment for ongoing medical issues, according to the American Journal of Public Health.

These limited health services also harm formerly incarcerated people. The risk of death is 13% higher for people who are recently released from prison, according to the National Library of Medicine.

PJP has curated a collection of seven stories by incarcerated writers that describe the range of aches and agitations that stem from limited health care access in prisons.


Hippocrates magnets found in Mykonos, Greece

Does ‘Do No Harm' Apply to Prisons?by Franklin Lee: “In my California prison, an environment where violence and abuse run rampant, we are subjected to a lack of proper health care.”

A Black woman holds her shoulder in pain

Two Decades of Prison, Two Decades of Declining Healthby Chanell Burnette: “When I entered prison, I was a healthy and vibrant 25-year-old woman. I will turn 44 this year. That is almost two decades of wear and tear on what was once a perfectly healthy body.”

Untreated mental illness is all too common in U.S. prisons.

Poor Mental Health Services Has People Falling Through the Cracksby Richard Coss: “Mental health: two words no one wants to put together. These words are often considered an embarrassment or stigma. Illnesses range from depression, anxiety and panic attacks to schizophrenia and kleptomania. There are over 200 mental disorders.”

The Race for Health Careby Chanell Burnette: “In terms of race relations and injustice on the inside, in my own experience, the greatest and most unfortunate divide lies in the health care we receive. While there is no doubt that all prisoners alike will likely receive inadequate health care at some point during their incarceration, it is more probable that Black prisoners will be treated more invidiously.”

Health problems linger for JoyBelle Phelan, long after leaving prison

Health Issues Followed Me Outside Prisonby JoyBelle Phelan: “Two days a week, I drive to a chiropractor to adjust my spine. Twice a month, I receive massage therapy from the technician at that same office to try and relieve the unrelenting pain in my lower back. After nearly a decade of sleeping on a metal bed frame with a 1-inch foam cushion inside prison, I now have lumbar scoliosis.”

Bags hang from a stainless steel IV stand

WADOC’S Neglect of Medical Care of Transgender Prisoner May Constitute Cruel and Unusual Punishmentby Princess Zoee Andromeda-Love: “The Washington State Department of Corrections (WADOC) has a history of neglecting the medical care of transgender prisoners. They also have a history of unnecessarily delaying care.” 

Blurry hospital hallway with figure of doctor walking away

Hurry Up and Wait: A Visit to the Doctorby Donna Hockman: “Sometime between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., I was jolted out of a dead sleep, gruff voices rushing me along, telling me to get up and get dressed — get to Building 8 for transportation. As an offender, I knew this day was coming, I just didn’t know when, exactly.”


Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Mari Kanagy is a former editorial intern at Global Forum Online.