The state’s inmates are prematurely ageing up to 15 years faster than the rest of the population, according to a new report which warns health services are struggling to keep pace with the ballooning prison population.
The report also found some inmates are refusing treatment for life-threatening conditions, including cancer, to avoid being transferred to a maximum security facility at Long Bay.The Herald has been told by prison families the facility is colloquially referred to as “long stay”, and the report confirmed it can take months for prisoners to return to the correctional centre from which they came.
The report, examining health services in correctional facilities across NSW, has been tabled in state parliament by Inspector of Custodial Services Fiona Rafter.
It flagged that more than 470 appointments at Long Bay Correctional Centre were cancelled by inmates before they were transferred there in 2017.
The centre treats prisoners who require specialist or emergency attention for serious medical conditions.
“Many inmates cancel their specialist appointments to avoid being transferred to Long Bay CC,” the report said. “This can result in a failure to diagnose or treat serious or chronic health issues that may become medical emergencies.”
One prisoner in his 80s with cancer initially declined radiation therapy because it would require a six-week stay at Long Bay.
The man had been serving time for a historical low-range fraud offence in a minimum security prison, with the lowest security classification.
“He said, ‘I can’t go to Long Bay, it’s terrifying. I can’t defend myself’,” his daughter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told the Herald.
Eventually his family was able to convince the man to receive the treatment and he was initially placed in an isolation cell with no windows at Long Bay. He was then offered a place in the geriatric ward.
“Dad said it was basically a palliative care unit, with a lot of nearly dead dribbling people in chairs,” his daughter recalled. “He said take me back to maximum security, it’s less depressing.”
His daughter said the system seemed ill-equipped to deal with elderly people suffering serious health issues.
“If he wasn’t at Long Bay he would be eligible for weekend release and access to his own doctor. It would also be saving Justice Health heaps of money. It’s madness.”
The Justice Health & Forensic Mental Health Network provides health services at 33 of the 36 correctional centres in NSW.
A spokesperson said inmates were entitled to the same healthcare as the rest of the community.
“Every person entering custody in NSW is assessed by a clinician to confirm their medical history, current medications and treatment, and ongoing care needs,” she said.
“Those in custody have access to a multidisciplinary team of clinicians, with health centres located in each correctional centre.”
However the inspector’s report noted that the surging inmate population meant demand was outstripping supply and placing “significant pressure upon prison health resources”.
One centre was experiencing an average wait time of 59 days to see a GP.
“Some inmates told the inspection team their difficulty in accessing a GP had led to a delayed diagnosis of a serious health condition or cancer,” the report said.
The use of telehealth saw wait times plummet during COVID-19 and it is hoped it will become a “mainstay” of prison health services.
There were also shortages of Aboriginal health workers and mental health beds, although Justice Health was commended for its management of Hepatitis C and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report noted prisoners experienced “accelerated ageing”, where signs of ageing appear up to 15 years before the rest of the population.
Greens MP David Shoebridge argued Corrective Services NSW was not committing the resources needed to keep inmates healthy.
“The mere fact of being incarcerated directly reduces a person’s lifespan … yet the system seems woefully unprepared for this,” he said.
“This is a system that has gone through a $3 billion expansion but there are still jails without proper medical services, and entire facilities without regular access to dentists and mental health workers.”
He argued it was “absurd” that frail, elderly inmates were being held in high security jails when the greatest risk they posed was falling and injuring themselves.
The number of elderly inmates is increasing disproportionately compared to community demographics.
“The network provides a range of specialist services to support the needs of aged inmates,” the spokeswoman for the Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network said.
A Corrective Services NSW spokeswoman said it was considering the report’s recommendations.
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