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Behind Bars but Not Without Rights

By Greg Rienzi

Researchers at the School's new Center for Public Health and Human Rights didn't have to look far to find a population warranting serious concern. Their recent study of female prisoners held at two different Washington D.C. correctional facilities uncovered significant barriers to health care at both prisons.

A trio of researchers from the center, including center director Chris Beyrer, MD, MPH '90; Julie Samia Mair, JD, MPH '00; and research fellow John Zambrano, MHS '05, interviewed nearly a third of the eligible female population last fall and winter, at the request of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project.

In their interviews of 111 women, the Bloomberg researchers found that 54 percent reported one or more diagnosed medical conditions. For that group, the researchers identified systematic delays in access to health care and prescription medication across a wide range of chronic, infectious and mental health illnesses. Of 13 women who reported having HIV/AIDS, four described medication delays of up to 180 days, two reported interrupted treatment, and three said that their medication was discontinued entirely.

Zambrano says that all of these access issues are serious health threats at both the individual and population levels.

"One example we often cite is that by delaying therapy for these HIV-positive women you run the risk of creating resistances to the drugs and thus the potential for transmitting HIV-drug resistant strains," says Zambrano, an MHS candidate in Epidemiology.

For their health care access survey of women incarcerated at the D.C. Jail and Correctional Treatment Facility, the three recently received the 2004 DC Prisoners' Legal Services Project, Community Service Award for "Protecting Human Rights in the District of Columbia."

In late June, Beyrer testified about the researchers' preliminary findings before a D.C. Council committee hearing. Beyrer and his group will soon produce a report to the committees and plan to submit a manuscript for peer-reviewed publication.

"We hope that our research will help lead to improved health care for persons in the D.C. jails, and other places of incarceration, by adding to the evidence that many persons incarcerated in U.S. correctional facilities are receiving inadequate health care," Mair says.