Intended for healthcare professionals

Analysis Healthcare in Prisons

Promoting health in prison

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 11 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f2216

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  1. Stephen Ginn, Roger Robinson editorial registrar
  1. 1BMJ, London WC1H 9JR, UK
  1. mail{at}

Prisons contain some of society’s most disadvantaged people. In the last of his series Stephen Ginn looks at how prison provides opportunities to improve their health and asks whether earlier intervention could keep them out of prison in the first place

In previous articles I have set out the challenges of providing healthcare in prisons and have examined the problems in British prisons of elderly prisoners, women prisoners, and prisoners with mental disorders.1 2 3 4 In this final article of the series I highlight how prison contributes to the treatment of people who are “hard to reach.”

Many British prisoners come from the most economically deprived and socially disadvantaged groups within society. They share with these groups the experience of being raised in care, low educational attainment, unemployment, and homelessness (table 1).5 Some minority ethnic groups are substantially over-represented (table 2). Many prisoners have chaotic lifestyles and complex health and social problems. They may also have limited health aspirations and low expectations of health services, which may not have the flexibility to respond effectively to their needs.7

View this table:

Table 1 Social characteristics of prisoners5

View this table:
Table 2

Proportion of people (%) of different ethnic backgrounds at various stages of the criminal justice system compared with general population, England and Wales6

Prison can provide an opportunity for the orderly assessment and treatment of those whose lifestyle has previously prevented engagement. Prisoners can be encouraged to adopt healthier behaviours, and prison can be viewed as an opportunity to address health inequalities.8 However, prisons are not principally in the business of promoting health and some people argue that there is an inherent contradiction between the aims of care and control.9 Prisons have values, rules, and rituals that enable prisoners to be observed, contained, and disempowered 10; …

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