Medicine in the Penal System

Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2018 Nov 30;115(48):808-814. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2018.0808.


Background: Infectious diseases, substance dependencies, and dental diseases are the most important health problems affecting incarcerated persons. In Germany, for example, prisoners are 48 to 69 times more likely to be infected with the hepatitis C virus (HCV) than the general population, and 7 to 12 times more likely to be infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The prevalence of mental illnesses is also markedly higher in the incarcerated than in the general population.

Methods: This review is based on pertinent publications retrieved by a selective search in two databases (PubMed and Google Scholar) for any of the terms "health care," "primary health care," "mental health care"; "infectious disease," "opioid maintenance treatment," and "severe mental disorder" in conjunction with "prison," "jail," "detention," and "incarceration."

Results: Among prisoners in German prisons, approximately 20% consume heroin, 20-50% suffer from alcohol dependency and abuse, and 70-85% smoke. The prevalence of tuberculosis in German prisons in 2002 was 0.1%. The provision of needles to incarcerated persons has a preventive effect on infection with hepatitis C, hepatitis B, and HIV, yet programs of this type have been discontinued in most penal facilities. In a systematic review, psychotic disorders were found in 3.6% (95% confidence interval [CI]: [3.1; 4.2]) of male inmates and 3.9% [95% CI: 2.7; 5.0] of female inmates. 25% of incarcerated persons suffer from attention-deficit-hyperac- tivity disorder. Persons recently released from prison have an above average mortality, largely due to drug intoxication.

Conclusion: An analysis of medical prescribing data reveals deficiencies in the provision of HCV treatment to all affected persons and in the provision of substitution treatment to persons with opiate dependency. In view of the known risks associated with imprisonment, greater emphasis should be placed on the provision of treatment for infectious diseases, substance dependencies, and mental illness, both in prison and in outpatient care after release.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Communicable Diseases / therapy*
  • Delivery of Health Care / organization & administration*
  • Delivery of Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / therapy*
  • Population Surveillance
  • Prisoners / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prisons / statistics & numerical data*
  • Risk Factors