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Correctional facilities can do more to protect inmates' health, rights, law professor says

Oct 6, 2015

Credit Flickr user FatMandy / http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

Last year, an inmate was placed in the Macomb County jail for failing to pay a traffic fine.

For 16 days, the inmate went through severe drug withdrawals, reportedly losing 50 pounds and suffering seizures and hallucinations before he died. The ordeal was caught by in-cell surveillance video.

Reports indicate that inmate deaths across the country are on the rise, with a particular concern focused on county jails.

Law professor Michele Deitch of the University of Texas at Austin has been researching issues at county jails for quite some time.

She tells us that stories like that of the Macomb County inmate are rare when you look at the sheer number of people passing through the doors of county jails every day, “but it’s sadly more common than you’d like to see.”

Deitch says that deaths in state and federal prisons tend to be more commonly associated with natural causes or broader health issues, whereas those in county jails are more often the result of suicide or drug or alcohol intoxication.

The Macomb County inmate needed and did not receive a variety of medications, which Deitch says is “a very common problem.”

“When inmates come from the streets into the facilities they often don’t have their medicines with them,” she says.

Deitch tells us that there are best practices and standards for jails and prisons promoted by the American Correctional Association and the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, but while they provide good guidance none of those guidelines are mandatory.

She has “a very long list” of suggestions for jails as regards inmate health and safety, but one item stands out.

“In terms of preventing deaths in custody, the single most important thing that needs to be done is to have an excellent screening process,” she says.

Deitch explains that by having an accurate and comprehensive screening process, many of these health issues can be detected and headed off at the pass.

Further, she tells us that, “really every jurisdiction needs to have an independent oversight body.”

“Every jurisdiction, every state, every county needs to provide some form of independent oversight of conditions in the local jail … in order to be sure that the rights of inmates are being protected,” she says.