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Commentary: Health care is key to rehabilitation as female incarceration rates soar
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The campaign in Georgia and in many states for adult and juvenile criminal justice reform has highlighted an alarming trend: Women represent a small portion of the prison population but their numbers are rising rapidly, with serious consequences for the children and communities they leave behind.

The number of women incarcerated in the United States since 1990 has jumped an astounding 92 percent and shows no sign of receding. In fact, according to a recent study at the Northeastern College of Criminal Justice, prison rates for women are increasing faster than for men.

The reasons for this increase are numerous, ranging from their historical offenses of larceny, forgery, embezzlement and prostitution, as well as crimes involving illegal drugs causing the most recent bump in the imprisonment numbers.

What is even more disturbing, however, are the root causes, among them, a drop in high school graduation rates among women (particularly among young black women), unemployment and teenage pregnancies, all of which lead to poverty and, often, criminal activities.

Girls are dropping out of school at dangerously high levels, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Nationwide, one in four fails to graduate; for black girls, four in 10 drop out. Add to this the fact that the majority of babies born in 2011 were children of minorities, the percentage of babies born to unmarried women was highest among teens, and that the unmarried birth rate among young black females is an astounding 75 percent, and you have a recipe for disaster in communities that depend on how well their children are educated.

The study also found that more than 70 percent of all women in prison have children. What chance of success is there for a child who doesn’t know his father and whose mother is incarcerated? It’s no surprise that the cycle repeats itself, and juvenile justice statistics reflect this.

The one bright spot in this dismal picture comes in the most unlikely of places: the prison system, where many of these young women end up. Rehabilitation is a key goal of incarceration and the correctional system may well be the female inmate’s last, best chance. Focusing on legislative criminal justice reform is admirable, but meanwhile, more practical approaches can also help.

A number of studies have concluded the key to a better life after release lies in access to educational, vocational and recreational programs and, particularly, to health care. Today’s technology, including electronic medical records (EMRs), can help provide a continuity of care previously unavailable, while managing and balancing costs to the institutions (i.e., taxpayers) so everybody wins.

The period of incarceration is a window of opportunity to instill healthier habits and continue to improve these women’s health beyond their incarceration. State and local maternal and child health professionals, among others, can assist, through partnerships with institution-based health services and arrange for follow-up in the community upon their release.

EMRs provide these institutions ongoing access to the patient’s records, no matter where the former inmate ends up.

A National Institute of Corrections report identified a number of characteristics that need addressing to put women on the road to rehabilitation. Medical needs was No. 1, followed by drug and alcohol abuse, sexual and physical abuse and child and family relationships. For many of these women, a prison medical facility may be the first place they have ever received such basic services as a physical examination, mental health screening or dental care.

The programs and counseling not only identify and help correct medical disorders, but encourage the inmates to continue a healthier path for themselves and any dependents they may have once released. This raises self-esteem to a degree and helps aid in the avoidance of future criminal activity.

The behavioral root causes of criminal activity must be addressed to slow the growth in female incarceration, but embracing information technology can bridge the gap between the prison system and the community. This helps officials follow and guide former inmates as they travel the path to a successful and, hopefully, a transition to healthier reintegration.

Albert Woodard is chairman, CEO and president of Business Computer Applications, an Atlanta-based IT health care company that is the world’s largest telemedicine system outside of the Pentagon. He wrote this for Tthe Georgia Public Policy Foundation.