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Building effective connections
By Paul Sheehan , COCHS Chief Operating Officer
Published: 02/25/2008

Ekg Every year, 12 million people pass through our nation’s jails. Local correctional agencies are required to provide health care for these inmates. That’s a tough job. There are always too many inmates, too much illness, not enough staff, and not enough dollars to do the job.

And yet jails offer a unique opportunity to improve both public health and public safety. The key is to build a bridge between health care services provided in the jail and health care services provided to inmates after they return to their communities. COCHS – Community Oriented Correctional Health Services – is a new, non-profit organization funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that fosters partnerships between jails and community health care providers, with the goal of helping local correctional facilities improve health care delivery.

Many people forget that jail inmates are part of their communities – not separate from them. They cycle in and out of jail, bringing their health problems back with them to their communities. These problems include HIV/AIDS, substance abuse, tuberculosis, severe mental disorders, and a host of communicable and chronic diseases.

A few jail systems in the country – Hampden County, Mass., the District of Columbia, and now Ocala County, Fla. – are experimenting with the COCHS approach, which pairs jail inmates with doctors from neighborhood health centers. In this way, doctors can identify and address inmates’ health problems before they go back to their communities.

By linking inmates with a local health care provider they can continue to see after their release, a connection is formed that ultimately benefits the health and safety of the community. Ultimately, COCHS hopes to help local communities around the country reduce the incidence of chronic disease and the cost of care.

COCHS leverages a proven program that has been identified as a model by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, and various justice, corrections, and health care associations. The bottom line: Dealing with health care up front, especially in jails, can reduce the burden of disease in communities and begin to address underlying social and public health problems. Case management and continuity of care are vital, especially for people with HIV.

Making community-based jail health service programs work is not easy. Challenges include enlisting the right partners from the community, building broad support in the community for the program, coordinating inmate information between the jail and local health providers, and demonstrating a return on investment – both in terms of health outcomes and dollars saved.

COCHS is available to help local correctional agencies interested in partnering with community health providers. Visit our website, www.cochs.org. In addition, COCHS publishes a free, quarterly newsletter, COCHS Connection. To subscribe, send an email to newsletter@cochs.org. Please indicate whether you’d like to receive the newsletter by email or in hard copy through the mail.

Prior to joining COCHS as chief operating officer, Paul Sheehan was employed by the Hampden County Sheriff's Department and Correctional Center in Massachusetts. There, he developed and managed a wide variety of facility and community-based inmate programs, including education, substance abuse treatment, vocational, and domestic violence.


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