Telehealth is reaching inside the walls of correctional facilities to provide quality mental and behavioral health care to incarcerated Americans.

Many Americans benefit from telehealth and telemental health care. However, one overlooked population in great need of mental and behavioral healthcare is thriving from adopting telehealth— incarcerated Americans.

The Need for Telehealth in Incarceration


Telehealth is being used to help incarcerated populations obtain quality mental health care. Prisoners are frequently faced with punishment and not treatment regarding their mental health issues. One study released in 2017 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) states, inmates have higher rates of serious psychological distress (SPD) than the U.S. general population.

“Of the 2.2 million people in prison or jail in the U.S., 26% of those in jail and 14% of those in prison meet the BJS’s threshold for serious psychological distress, compared to just 5% in the general population.” Bureau of Justice, 2017

Approximately 37% of state and federal prisoners, and 44% of jail inmates, have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness by a mental health professional in the past. To clarify, serious mental illness includes schizophrenia, major depression, PTSD, substance use disorders, bipolar disorder, etc. Misdiagnosed or untreated mental health disorders, coupled with violent tendencies, are traits that account for a substantial portion of incarcerated men and women.


Another notable and concerning issue is the sizeable percentage of people in correctional facilities diagnosed with substance use disorder (SUD). Nearly 68% of prisoners have been diagnosed with SUDs, compared to only 9% of the general population. And it is estimated that 72% of people in jail with a serious mental illness have also been diagnosed with a SUD.

Mental illness and SUDs have many of the same risk factors, and thus often go hand-in-hand. Have a mental illness can predispose the person to developing SUD, and vice-versa. In addition, mental illness coupled with SUDs are less likely to meet Medicaid work requirements. This means that without proper diagnosis and treatment, inmates are fare less likely to maintain work once released, thus continuing the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration.


According to an article published by NPR, prison systems are facing fiscal crises and are struggling to provide adequate treatment for mental health care. Despite the desperate need for access to mental healthcare, inmates are going untreated due to provider shortages, lack of access to medication, and the inherent isolation that comes with being incarcerated. Stigmas surrounding mental health also contribute to the lack of mental healthcare sought out by those in incarceration.

A recent report conducted by The Sentencing Project shows the strong correlation between the lack of mental health care and the rate of incarceration. Six out of the ten states with the least access to mental health care also show the highest rates of incarceration. There is compelling evidence to support the need for mental health care in prisons, jails, and correctional facilities.

Benefits of Telehealth in Incarceration

Before the advancements in telehealth, in order for a prisoner to receive medical and mental healthcare, one of two things had to happen. Either a provider had to enter the correctional facility to treat the patient, or the incarcerated patient would have to leave the correctional facility to obtain healthcare. Now that telehealth has expanded and improved, the benefits have been widespread among all involved.  


There is a national shortage of mental health providers to treat incarcerated men and women. Because of this, available clinicians are left with overwhelming caseloads. In many cases, prisons and jails hire one mental health professional to take on a case load of hundreds of prisoners. The providers that don’t work at one specific facilities are required to travel between facilities, often spread far apart. The travel and transportation time to get between facilities could be spent seeing patients from the convenience of their homes or offices via telehealth.

Often, providers are—understandably—hesitant to enter correctional facilities to treat inmates. While not all prisoners pose a violent threat, many providers are concerned about the danger of entering the prisons and jails to treat their patients. When providers enter prisons, they are required to go through an extensive search, and repeated verification processes. With telehealth, clinical staff is not required to enter the prison or physically interact with potentially dangerous patients or situations.

Allowing providers to treat patients through telehealth has proven to alleviate staffing shortages. It has also shown a positive impact on both provider and patient, as quality mental healthcare is accessible and available on a consistent basis.


Despite such high levels of mental illness and the need for mental health care, many prisoners are unable to receive the care they need. Due to provider shortages, fiscal crises, policy changes, and stigmas surrounding mental health care, many inmates are denied quality care which is in violation of their basic human rights.

With telehealth, incarcerated men and woman have regular access to mental and behavioral healthcare as well as medication management and talk therapy. An article published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) projected that 83% of jail inmates who had mental health issues did not have regular access to mental healthcare. Patients are given full, in-depth evaluations to ensure a proper diagnosis, and thus proper treatment. Due to more well-managed caseloads, inmates are given the provider’s complete attention.  In addition, telehealth offers a solution to the staffing shortages partially responsible for the lack of mental healthcare among incarcerated people.


Telehealth also eases the stress on corrections staff. With telehealth, there is no need to organize transportation, leave the facility, or provide protection for the health care providers visiting the facility. Another benefit from telehealth services such as Encounter Telehealth is staff training. Encounter offers staff training to improve behavioral healthcare. This helps keep everyone on the same page regarding administering and understanding mental health care.


When correctional facilities adopt telehealth for inmates, they are also increasing public safety and peace of mind. As discussed, for inmates to receive healthcare they are often required to leave the correctional facility to see providers. Subsequently, this puts the inmates at increased probability of assault, public violence, or escape. With telehealth, inmates receive quality mental and behavioral healthcare from within the prison walls and do not have to be exposed to outside elements or the general public.

Continued Care Through Telehealth

Telehealth is also helping convicts once they are released from prisons and jails. Telehealth is being implemented in rehabilitation centers, reentry programs, vocational services, and as parole stipulations. This is particularly vital for patients that have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder while incarcerated. Once inmates are released, they often lose access to treatment and prescribed medications which puts them at a greater risk for repeated behavior.

Wrapping Up

Like many difficult-to-reach populations of America, incarcerated Americans are in desperate need of mental healthcare. Telehealth is helping to reach these remote and overlooked populations.


Encounter Telehealth partners with correctional facilities in Nebraska to provide quality and convenient mental healthcare to inmates. We also service skilled nursing facilities, rehabilitation centers, and assisted living communities across America.

Most mental health disorders can benefit from the following services provided by Encounter Telehealth:

  • Proper evaluations and diagnosis
  • Talk Therapy
  • Counseling
  • Behavioral Therapy
  • Staff Training
  • And, when needed, medication management


Visit Encounter Telehealth’s website HERE to learn more about the mental health care we offer.

The Stepping Up Initiative aims to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jails. Learn more HERE.

Stay informed of prison mental health policy by visiting Prison Policy Initiative HERE.