Health and healthcare access among Zambia's female prisoners: a health systems analysis

Int J Equity Health. 2016 Sep 26;15(1):157. doi: 10.1186/s12939-016-0449-y.


Background: Research exploring the drivers of health outcomes of women who are in prison in low- and middle-income settings is largely absent. This study aimed to identify and examine the interaction between structural, organisational and relational factors influencing Zambian women prisoners' health and healthcare access.

Methods: We conducted in-depth interviews of 23 female prisoners across four prisons, as well as 21 prison officers and health care workers. The prisoners were selected in a multi-stage sampling design with a purposive selection of prisons followed by a random sampling of cells and of female inmates within cells. Largely inductive thematic analysis was guided by the concepts of dynamic interaction and emergent behaviour, drawn from the theory of complex adaptive systems.

Results: We identified compounding and generally negative effects on health and access to healthcare from three factors: i) systemic health resource shortfalls, ii) an implicit prioritization of male prisoners' health needs, and iii) chronic and unchecked patterns of both officer- and inmate-led victimisation. Specifically, women's access to health services was shaped by the interactions between lack of in-house clinics, privileged male prisoner access to limited transport options, and weak responsiveness by female officers to prisoner requests for healthcare. Further intensifying these interactions were prisoners' differential wealth and access to family support, and appointments of senior 'special stage' prisoners which enabled chronic victimisation of less wealthy or less powerful individuals.

Conclusions: This systems-oriented analysis revealed how Zambian women's prisoners' health and access to healthcare is influenced by weak resourcing for prisoner health, administrative biases, and a prevailing organisational and inmate culture. Findings highlight the urgent need for investment in structural improvements in health service availability but also interventions to reform the organisational culture which shapes officers' understanding and responsiveness to women prisoners' health needs.

Keywords: Health systems; Prison health services; Prisoner health; Women prisoners.