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ICRC Head of Delegation Boris Michel
“To break the cycle of poor health outcomes in prisons, we need to go beyond curative care and examine the inmates’ living conditions. We must look at prison health care from all angles. We must consider prison health as a public health issue if we are to break that cycle,” said ICRC Head of Delegation Boris Michel in his opening remarks. In photo are (from left) Philippine Interior and Local Government Undersecretary Nestor Quinsay, Philippine Justice Undersecretary Deo Marco, and Thomas Hiatt, technical officer of the World Health Organization.

Health despite bars: Asia-Pacific region tackles state of prison health

November 13, 2019

MANILA – With the Asia and Pacific region having over four million prisoners – the highest in the world according to the latest World Prison Population List – tackling the need for quality healthcare among detainees is as complex as it is critical.

“Prisoners deserve the same standards of healthcare as are available to the community, as well as access to health services without discrimination. But often, the inmates’ health needs cannot be fully met due to challenges in the coordination among authorities concerned, lack of coherence in policies and procedures, inadequate health staff and facilities, among other reasons,” said Dr. Ziad Tohme, who works with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as a regional specialist looking into the health-care needs in detention facilities in Asia and the Pacific.

Poor living conditions in many prisons across the world adversely impacts the health of inmates, worsening their pre-existing ailments or leading to new health concerns in prisons.

“Tuberculosis and other communicable diseases are significantly prevalent in prisons, and may spread to the community through staff, visitors and released prisoners who received inadequate treatment. Curative care must be supported by improving food and nutrition, water, sanitation and having activities for better health. It’s also critical to recognize that prison managers and other staff are just as responsible for prisoners’ health,” Dr. Tohme said.

To support authorities in the region strengthen their prison health systems for the benefit of inmates, jail staff and communities at large, the ICRC organized the third Asian and Pacific Conference on Prison Health (APCPH) from 13 to 15 November 2019 in Manila, Philippines.

Titled “Health Despite Bars”, the conference provides a platform to health and detention authorities, academics and public health experts, to share research and best practices, as well as challenges. The conference also aims to:

- promote a whole-of-government approach to prison health;

- increase awareness of international standards;

- encourage participants to be active members of the worldwide prison health research and engagement network.

Around 150 participants involved in prison health from 21 countries will discuss topics such as health needs of women and other vulnerable groups, mental health and drug addiction, international standards for prison health.

As a result of the conference, it is hoped that the participants will help improve the health outcomes of detainees through effective management and coordination, promote respect for fundamental rights protecting all detainees, and implement related standards and principles (including “equivalence of care”), contributing to a healthier society.

“We’re all involved in providing care to people in custody. Coming to a conference allows us to find out what’s working in some places, what’s not working so well… share our experiences. The reason why we’re all here is to improve care for people who are in detention. We are all passionate about that and so if we can learn from each other that can improve the care of people in custody, that’s a great thing,” said participant Fiona Montroy, clinical nurse consultant of Justice Health and Forensic Mental Health Network in New South Wales, Australia.