How The Prison Medical System Leaves Incarcerated People To Die

unkempt hospital bed with a monitor
Zain Murdock
May 15, 2024

The idea of a prison medical system is an oxymoron. Healthcare saves lives. Prisons punish and facilitate violence to destroy lives. In the U.S., genuine concern for autonomy, wellness, and equity isn’t a priority, much less an ethical obligation not to harm incarcerated patients.

Most prisons make incarcerated people pay a copay for medical care, and deny them routine care and medication. Systemic ableism and anti-Blackness contribute to authority figures treating people as criminals, not as patients.

Conditions like testicular cancer, Covid-19, and chronic illnesses are treatable, at least when the people who have them aren’t in prison. But since prisons define safety in terms of security and not as saving lives, incarcerated people are dying preventable and painful deaths. And their causes of death aren’t just illnesses but incarceration itself.

Between 2018 and 2022, the average age of death for Black men in New Jersey prisons was 57 years and 4 months. But in New Jersey as a whole, the average age of death is 71 years and 8 months — and 64 years and 4 months for Black men.

Life expectancy for Black people is already low. But being in prison accelerates aging, and shaves an additional two years off a person’s life for every year they're there. The death penalty is state-facilitated murder. But even without execution, long prison sentences lead to early death.