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Cancer in Jails is More Deadly

Cancer can be a life-changing diagnosis for anyone, but for those with a history of incarceration, it can also be more deadly.

Cancer is deadlier for the incarcerated

One fact remains constant in terms of cancer. Those who have been incarcerated are more likely to die from cancer, or cancer-related causes.

In state prisons, almost a third of deaths are due to cancer. Even with advances in medical treatments and screenings, cancer rates among inmates (or those recently released) continues to climb. From 2001 to 2019, state prison cancer deaths increased by about 4%, while cancer deaths decreased for U.S. adults in general. By 2019, this meant a difference of 5 deaths per 100,000 people.

  • Adult U.S. residents: 83 cancer deaths per 100,000 people
  • State Prisoners: 88 cancer deaths per 100,000 people

Inmates are also more likely to be diagnosed and die from cancer AFTER being released. Sadly, survival outcomes are also lower for inmates 5-years later if diagnosed while incarcerated or in the year following release.

Detectable Cancers are being missed

The most common types of cancers for those with a history of incarceration include:

  • Lung Cancer
  • Cervical Cancer
  • Colorectal Cancer
  • Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
  • Liver Cancer

Prostate, breast and colon cancer don’t make this list, but many inmates likely have these conditions and they are simply under or undiagnosed. Because medical screenings are delayed or missed, these treatable cancers are allowed to worsen.

One example of how incarceration affects cancer diagnoses is with cervical cancer in women.

Cervical Cancer

Rates of cervical cancer have declined in the U.S. thanks to regular pap smears, HPV testing and vaccines. But incarcerated women are still 4 to 5 times more likely to develop cervical cancer.

Important screenings and routine preventive care is being missed for those touched by the criminal justice system. And in local jails, the situation is often worse. Since jail-based healthcare focuses primarily on treating active illness or symptoms, cancer screenings can be missed.

Why is it so hard?

Obtaining a diagnosis or seeking medical treatment is a challenge for many inmates. And while some challenges will be eased once back in the community, others will worsen.

  • Deciding to Seek Care
    • Delays in reporting symptoms
    • Delays in seeking or receiving treatment
    • Symptoms not taken seriously by medical or jail staff
  • Accessing Care
    • Medical appointments are hard to access
      • Inmates may need to first see a corrections officer, then a nurse before they can access care
    • Costs of the visit and medical co-pays can be too expensive
      • Some prison systems require inmates to pay a co-pay for each medical visit. The goal is to help prevent misuse of medical services and help inmates become involved in their care
    • Barriers to care may lead inmates to lose motivation or interest in continuing treatment and follow-up care
  • Care Coordination
    • Staffing shortages in most prisons can lead to missed appointments at no fault of the inmate
    • Making arrangements for procedures can be time consuming and hard to coordinate
      • For example: A colonoscopy screening could involve multiple appointments, travel to the facility, bowel prep, and a recovery period
    • It is hard for inmates to follow-up on results, care plans or other communications with outside medical staff

Cancer is a serious medical condition that can worsen over time and requires prompt medical care. If a loved one has died or you have suffered life-changing effects due to a missed cancer diagnosis or delayed treatment while in jail, consider reaching out to one of our experienced attorneys.

For more information on inmates’ rights to quality medical care, check out our other article in this series about what happens when jails do not provide medical care. 

Written By: author image Allison Kunerth
author image Allison Kunerth
Allison Kunerth, Ph.D. earned her Ph.D. in Public Health Studies at Saint Louis University. She also earned a P.S.M. in Biology at Illinois Institute of Technology, and an M.S. in Biosecurity and and Disaster Preparedness at Saint Louis University. Doctor Kunerth earned a B.S. in General Science at University of Oregon. Doctor Kunerth has worked as a writer, data analyst, communicable disease planner, program analyst, and laboratory technician. She has served in the military since 2010, currently serving as a Medical Service Corps Officer, with the rank of Captain, in the United States Army Reserve. Doctor Kunerth has published extensively, being either the primary or contributing author to approximately fifteen journal publications. Doctor Kunerth has also been the primary or co-presenter for approximately fourteen poster presentations. She has worked with the Lane County Public Health Advisory Committee, International Society of Disease Surveillance, and Saint Louis Regional Radiological Response Medical Reserve Corps.