PfCJR Partners With A New Criminal Justice Taskforce From ACOEM
In 2016, the United States held 2.2 million people in prisons and jails, and about 870,000 of these inmates performed some type of work, whether supporting the functioning of the prison, for prison industries, or under contract for private corporations.
They work jobs with well characterized occupational hazards – agriculture, manufacturing, fire fighting, chemical production, and many others – yet our standard occupational health surveillance systems (eg OSHA and NIOSH) explicitly ignore work-related injuries, illnesses, or fatalities in this “institutionalized” population.
Furthermore, there are precisely zero articles in our medical and public health literature addressing the occupational health of prisoners, and prison inmates are almost completely excluded from every major labor and employment protection in the US.
Finally, inmates are exposed to all the unique hazards of the prison environment – psychosocial stressors, physical and social isolation, poor institutional oversight, and vulnerability to exploitation, powerfully suggesting that these workers suffer higher rates of injury and illness compared to counterparts in the free market.
Herein lies the opportunity – physicians have precisely the training and authority to guide research and address hazards in prisoners’ workplaces. That research must document current injury and illness rates and advocate workplace controls equivalent to those in the free labor market. We must also characterize unique hazards faced by inmates, informed by social epidemiological and qualitative methods, while recognizing the larger environmental forces shaping their overall safety.
The following article is the first to ever recognize the position inmates hold as the most marginalized of occupational populations, written by a member of the Incarcerated Workers Occupational Health Task Force, under the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM). OEM physicians are certified by the American Board of Preventive Medicine and specially trained to attend to the health of workers through epidemiological investigation, direct medical care, prevention of occupational injuries and illnesses, and protection from environmental hazards.
This task force will be applying precisely these skills to address the workplace health of incarcerated workers. In the coming years we will confirm a literature review, scope and plan a research strategy, identify stakeholders, and publish the initial results from our investigations, but a challenge of this magnitude will require broader expertise.
The Task Force is seeking partners from all other medical specialties to help. Virchow reminds us that “It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation,” but together we can build this research from the ground up, propose policy, and to lend the powerful, trusted, and moral voices of physicians to a critical and growing conversation about criminal justice reform.
Andre Montoya-Barthelemy MD MPH
Incarcerated Workers Occupational Health Task Force
American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine
Andre Montoya-Barthelemy is a physician of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (OEM) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is a recent graduate of the HealthPartners OEM residency where he completed his thesis on the labor rights of incarcerated workers, and now serving as clinical faculty, assistant residency director, and consultant medical director for Xcel Energy and General Mills. He intends to continue searching for ways for physicians to combine their unique skills and voice to address topics of human rights.