Louisiana has the highest number of inmate deaths (per 100,000) in the nation and it isn’t even close. Alarmingly, the number is rising rapidly. Kentucky is another state with poor inmate health – ranking second in the nation in terms of cancer deaths at 108 per 100,000 (from 2001-2013), for example. But this is still quite a bit better than the dramatic situation in Louisiana where the rate of inmate cancer is 154 per 100,000. Outside of the South, in the nation’s largest state California, the inmate death rate is much lower and has not experienced a large increase over the last decade. California’s cancer death rate is a much lower 55 per 100,000.
What explains this dramatic disparity? More research is needed to better understand this dynamic, but part of the answer is likely that the Deep South has the worst health outcomes in the country. For example, heart disease is far more prevalent in the Deep South than anywhere else in the country.
Funneling unhealthy people into the criminal justice system might create a hyper-concentrated population of people with already bad health. And Louisiana certainly does funnel; the state leads the nation in people incarcerated in state prisons per 100,000 residents. More resources are needed to care for this sick, quickly growing group of people. Stories of people dying from untreated cancer in Louisiana prisons have been documented. Prison healthcare monitoring and evaluation must be better performed, followed by improvements and reforms. This must occur alongside addressing the social determinants of health, as well as systemic policies that lead to mass incarceration, so that fewer people end up in prison and those who do are in better health.