Inmate Health and Healthcare Expenditure in County Jails

Inmate Health and Healthcare Expenditure in County Jails

County jails are required by law to provide necessary healthcare services to inmates. The cost of inmate healthcare varies by jail. Some states see high spending statistics per inmate on healthcare, while others are much lower. But, delivering quality healthcare to inmates is important as these services impact public health and crime and recidivism rates. 

Providing healthcare can be challenging for a lot of county jails due to the high costs. Many county jails face challenges in delivering adequate healthcare resources to their inmates due to overcrowding. With so many inmates that need services, providing the necessary care in a cost-efficient way is an obstacle for many counties. We'll dive deeper into some of the county jail healthcare statistics. We'll also discuss some of the challenges of providing these services to inmate populations. 

Overview of Healthcare in County Jails

County jails must provide necessary healthcare services to all inmates. However, the quality and level of care vary by state, county, and facility. Some facilities offer high-quality medical care, while others don't. There's typically also a difference in the kind of care inmates receive at prisons vs. jails.

In prisons, there are often more resources available to address long-term health needs and mental health. Inmates in state or federal prisons typically face years-long sentences, so they'll need access to these kinds of resources. In contrast, those who serve a sentence in a county jail will likely be there for less than a year. In general, because county jails are short-term facilities, inmates receive only healthcare services that address acute conditions. County jails often don't have the time or resources to address chronic conditions. 

Small county jails typically have limited in-house resources. A lot of facilities depend on telehealth services. Some may not have any healthcare staff or units for inmates, so in the case of a medical emergency, they'll call 911 for healthcare needs. Because of a lack of resources and staff, inmates at county jails may only receive medical care in severe circumstances. 

Additionally, some states allow jails to charge fees and copayments for medical care. However, the range of these fees varies by facility. An inmate may only need to pay a few dollars for copay, while an inmate at a different facility may have to pay close to a hundred dollars for a doctor's visit. Many inmates struggle financially and are deterred from seeking treatment and care for health issues. A lack of preventative care can lead to greater costs down the road, which is why it's important for jails and prisons to address the long-term health of their inmates. 


According to available jail information, the average amount of money that a state department of corrections would spend on an inmate totaled $5,720. However, for some states like California, the total amount was much higher at about $15,827. On the other hand, other states, like Alabama and Louisiana, clocked in well below this average. However, it's worth noting that the cost of spending may not be indicative of the level of care an inmate receives. 

Available jail information also shows that the rates of illnesses and communicable diseases are higher in jails and prisons than in the general population. Some of the most common health issues that are prevalent in jails include diabetes, hepatitis C, and various mental illnesses. The rates for many common illnesses and health issues are much higher for inmates than those on the outside. 

For example, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the total number of adult Americans living with asthma was 8%. However, about 17% of inmates in state prisons deal with asthma. Infections like Hepatitis C are also drastically more prevalent in inmate populations compared to the general public. About 10% of inmates in state prisons have Hepatitis C, while only 1.7% of the US population has it. 

Additionally, available jail information also shows that substance use disorders are radically higher in jails and prisons compared to the general public. About 49% of inmates had substance use disorders before becoming an inmate compared to about 8% of the general population. In addition, inmates suffer from mental illness at a much higher rate than the general population. 

Challenges County Jails Face When Providing Healthcare

County jails and prisons need to provide adequate healthcare, as it is essential to the well-being of inmates and communities.  Not only does quality healthcare for inmates improve public health, but it also helps to reduce crime and recidivism rates. However, even though adequate healthcare for inmates is important for the benefit of all, many county jails face challenges when trying to provide services to inmates. 

One of the difficulties county jails face when providing adequate healthcare is dealing with chronic illnesses. In general, county jails house inmates for only short periods of time, which makes adequately treating long-term illnesses difficult. For example, those with diabetes while in jail or prison find it hard to manage. They have to make multiple trips a day to the infirmary for blood testing. They also need to find ways to manage a healthy diet and daily exercise, which is particularly hard to do while incarcerated. 

Many people who end up in prisons or jails did not have health insurance before their incarceration, which may have contributed to more serious long-term illnesses that went undiagnosed. Furthermore, inmates housed in county jails typically aren't held there for very long, which makes it difficult for jail medical staff to address long-term chronic health issues. 

County jails may also face challenges related to providing adequate mental health and psychiatric care for inmates. Depending on the state and facility, access to mental health resources and professionals may be incredibly hard to come by. What's more, a staggering amount of inmates deal with some form of mental illness during their incarceration. The trauma of incarceration itself may also contribute to a mental illness diagnosis. Jails and prisons are ill-equipped to provide the kind of environment and care that those suffering from mental illness need, which can lead to unsafe conditions for inmates and jail staff. 

Providing quality care for inmates in county jails is essential to public health and the good of the community. High-quality healthcare has been associated with lowering crime and recidivism rates among inmates returning to the community. However, statistics show that inmates suffer from illnesses and health issues at a much higher rate than the rest of the American population. There are a few challenges that jails and prisons face in providing adequate healthcare to inmates, including treating chronic conditions and a lack of mental health resources. Overcoming these issues will lead to better outcomes for inmates, jail staff, and communities. However, the quality of care varies by facility. If you're looking to find specific jail information, we have listed all county jails by state in the country.