Updated 27 February 2017

Cancer can kill you faster behind bars

Studies have found that prison inmates have a higher risk of developing certain kinds of diseases that can lead to an early death.


We might not have the death penalty in SA, but that doesn’t mean prisons aren’t deadly.  A new study suggests that prison time can exact a deadly toll on health.

Canadian researchers found that being behind bars puts people at greater risk for both developing certain types of cancer and dying from their disease.

Prisoners more likely to have HPV & HIV

"We know that people who spend time in jails and prisons in Canada are more likely to use alcohol and tobacco, as well as have infections such as HPV (human papillomavirus) and HIV, which can increase the risk of developing some types of cancer," said study author Dr Fiona Kouyoumdjian. She is a researcher at St. Michael's Hospital and McMaster University in Toronto.

The findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

In South Africa, where the crime rate and rape rate is very high, it is particularly important to be aware of the way in which HPV is transmitted. According to a Health24 articleHPV is more common than you might think since eight out of 10 adults are likely to come into contact with the infection.

South Africa's total prison population is 161 984, including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners.

A 2015 study demonstrated high HPV prevalence among HIV-positive women and men in all age groups in the study, indicating that the South African population will greatly benefit from current HPV vaccines.

Different kinds of cancer

Two HPV vaccines are approved in South Africa – Gardasil and Cervarix. But they do not offer the same cancer protection, nor do they protect against all types of HPV diseases.

For the Canadian study, the researchers followed nearly 50 000 people sentenced to jail time in Ontario in 2000. Specifically, the investigators examined how many of these inmates developed cancer and how many died from the disease over the course of 12 years.

By 2012, 2.6% of the men and 2.8% of the women who spent time in jail or prison were newly diagnosed with cancer, the findings showed. Men were more likely to develop lung, prostate, colorectal, and head and neck cancers. Women were more likely to be diagnosed with breast, lung and cervical cancers.

During the 12-year study, 1.1% of the men and 0.9% of the women who spent time in jail or prison died from cancer, according to the report.

Specific strategies

After taking their age into account, the researchers found the death rate among people who spent time in jail was 1.6 times higher for men and 1.4 times higher for women than in the general population in Ontario.

Among the men who were in prison, the death rate was higher for any type of cancer, lung cancer, liver cancer, as well as head and neck cancer. For the women, the death rate was higher for lung, liver, and head and neck cancers. These women were also three times more likely than women in the general population to die from cervical cancer, the study authors said.

The researchers noted that risk factors for cancer could be more prevalent among prison populations, and added that cancer prevention efforts should target this high-risk group.

"Incarceration represents a chance to help people improve their health through the provision of services and linkage with programmes in the community," Kouyoumdjian said in a St. Michael's news release.

"Specific strategies that could prevent cancer in this population include smoking cessation, vaccination for HPV and [hepatitis B virus], Pap screening and treatment for hepatitis C," she said. "And these strategies could have a large impact given that many people who experience incarceration are quite young."

Read More:

Prison education stops re-offending

What it's like in a South African prison

HIV-positive adults may have higher diabetes risk


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Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst. For more information, visit

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