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Paul Nieuwbeerta in The Lancet on detainees’ health

For the first time, research has been conducted on how the health of detained persons prior to their detention differs from that of non-detainees and to what extent health problems change over the period: from before and after their detention.

Paul Nieuwbeerta

The research – a collaboration between the Netherlands Institute for the Study of Crime and Law Enforcement (NISCALE), the Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research (NIVEL), and Leiden University – shows that the health problems of detainees do not improve or worsen. The research Mental and physical health problems before and after detention: a matched cohort study was published in The Lancet Regional Health - Europe. Professor of Criminology Paul Nieuwbeerta was involved in the research on behalf of Leiden University.

People with poor health are largely overrepresented in penal institutions. Compared to the general population, detainees experience more physical problems such as infectious disease and chronic ailments, and more mental health problems such as depression, addiction issues and personality disorders. Until now, it was unclear to what extent detainees had poor health prior to their period of detention, or whether their poor health was a result of their detention. To investigate this properly, the same detainees had to be monitored over a longer period of time, their health had to be investigated before and after detention, and the health of a comparable group of non-detainees also had to be investigated.

To conduct the research, within the high-security environment of Statistics Netherlands (CBS) the anonymised data over detention periods was linked to background data and data on health problems for which people went to their GP. A group of 952 detainees who were detained in 2014 or 2015 was compared to a group of 4,760 non-detainees of the same age and gender, who went to the same general practice.

Compared to non-detainees, in the year prior to the detention period male detainees more often reported social problems, neurological problems, digestive problems, problems related to the genital system and non-specific health problems. To illustrate: 43.7% of the detainees went to their GP with psychological problems in the year before their detention, compared to 17.6% of the non-detainees. To a certain extent, the differences in health prior to detention were related to social-economic differences between detainees and non-detainees. A similar pattern was seen in female detainees. The study found no changes in health problems over time, from before until after the detention period; for neither the detainees, nor for the control group.

People in detention have numerous and complex health problems before as well as after this period. Their health requires attention from health professionals both inside and outside the prison walls. Although the research found no negative health effect of the period of detention, it also found no positive effect. Detention could therefore offer an important opportunity to tackle the many health issues of detainees more intensively.

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