Diabetes Management in Correctional Institutions

At any given time, over 2 million people are incarcerated in prisons and jails in the U.S. It is estimated that nearly 80,000 of these inmates have diabetes, a prevalence of 4.8%. In addition, many more people pass through the corrections system in a given year. In 1998 alone, over 11 million people were released from prison to the community . The current estimated prevalence of diabetes in correctional institutions is somewhat lower than the overall U.S. prevalence of diabetes, perhaps because the incarcerated population is younger than the general population. The prevalence of diabetes and its related comorbidities and complications, however, will continue to increase in the prison population as current sentencing guidelines continue to increase the number of aging prisoners and the incidence of diabetes in young people continues to increase.

People with diabetes in correctional facilities should receive care that meets national standards. Correctional institutions have unique circumstances that need to be considered so that all standards of care may be achieved. Correctional institutions should have written policies and procedures for the management of diabetes and for training of medical and correctional staff in diabetes care practices. These policies must take into consideration issues such as security needs, transfer from one facility to another, and access to medical personnel and equipment, so that all appropriate levels of care are provided. Ideally, these policies should encourage or at least allow patients to self-manage their diabetes. Ultimately, diabetes management is dependent upon having access to needed medical personnel and equipment. Ongoing diabetes therapy is important in order to reduce the risk of later complications, including cardiovascular events, visual loss, renal failure, and amputation. Early identification and intervention for people with diabetes is also likely to reduce short-term risks for acute complications requiring transfer out of the facility, thus improving security. 

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This document provides a general set of guidelines for diabetes care in correctional institutions. It is not designed to be a diabetes management manual. More detailed information on the management of diabetes and related disorders can be found in the American Diabetes Association (ADA) Clinical Practice Recommendations, published each year in January as the first supplement to Diabetes Care, as well as the “Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes” contained therein. This discussion will focus on those areas where the care of people with diabetes in correctional facilities may differ, and specific recommendations are made at the end of each section.


Reception screening

Reception screening should emphasize patient safety. In particular, rapid identification of all insulin-treated persons with diabetes is essential in order to identify those at highest risk for hypo- and hyperglycemia and diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). All insulin-treated patients should have a capillary blood glucose (CBG) determination within 1??2 h of arrival. Signs and symptoms of hypo- or hyperglycemia can often be confused with intoxication or withdrawal from drugs or alcohol. Individuals with diabetes exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with hypoglycemia, particularly altered mental status, agitation, combativeness, and diaphoresis, should have finger-stick blood glucose levels measured immediately.

Intake screening

Patients with a diagnosis of diabetes should have a complete medical history and physical examination by a licensed health care provider with prescriptive authority in a timely manner. If one is not available on site, one should be consulted by those performing reception screening. The purposes of this history and physical examination are to determine the type of diabetes, current therapy, alcohol use, and behavioral health issues, as well as to screen for the presence of diabetes-related complications. The evaluation should review the previous treatment and the past history of both glycemic control and diabetes complications. It is essential that medication and medical nutrition therapy (MNT) be continued without interruption upon entry into the correctional system, as a hiatus in either medication or appropriate nutrition may lead to either severe hypo- or hyperglycemia that can rapidly progress to irreversible complications, even death.

Intake physical examination and laboratory

All potential elements of the initial medical evaluation are included in Table 5 of the ADA??s “Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes,” referred to hereafter as the “Standards of Care”. The essential components of the initial history and physical examination are detailed in Fig. 1. Referrals should be made immediately if the patient with diabetes is pregnant. Figure 1?? Essential components of the initial history and physical examination. Alb/Cr ratio, albumin-to-creatinine ratio; ALT, alanine aminotransferase; AST, aspartate aminotransferase.


* Patients with a diagnosis of diabetes should have a complete medical history and undergo an intake physical examination by a licensed health professional in a timely manner. (E)
* Insulin-treated patients should have a CBG determination within 1??2 h of arrival. (E)
* Medications and MNT should be continued without interruption upon entry into the correctional environment. (E)


Consistent with the ADA Standards of Care, patients should be evaluated for diabetes risk factors at the intake physical and at appropriate times thereafter. Those who are at high risk should be considered for blood glucose screening. If pregnant, a risk assessment for gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM) should be undertaken at the first prenatal visit. Patients with clinical characteristics consistent with a high risk for GDM should undergo glucose testing as soon as possible. High-risk women not found to have GDM at the initial screening and average-risk women should be tested between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation. For more detailed information on screening for both type 2 and gestational diabetes, see the ADA Position Statement “Screening for Type 2 Diabetes” and the Standards of Care.


Glycemic control is fundamental to the management of diabetes. A management plan to achieve normal or near-normal glycemia with an A1C goal of <7% should be developed for diabetes management at the time of initial medical evaluation. Goals should be individualized, and less stringent treatment goals may be appropriate for patients with a history of severe hypoglycemia, patients with limited life expectancies, elderly adults, and individuals with comorbid conditions. This plan should be documented in the patient??s record and communicated to all persons involved in his/her care, including security staff. Table 1, taken from the ADA Standards of Care, provides a summary of recommendations for setting glycemic control goals for adults with diabetes.

People with diabetes should ideally receive medical care from a physician-coordinated team. Such teams include, but are not limited to, physicians, nurses, dietitians, and mental health professionals with expertise and a special interest in diabetes. It is essential in this collaborative and integrated team approach that individuals with diabetes assume as active a role in their care as possible. Diabetes self-management education is an integral component of care. Patient self-management should be emphasized, and the plan should encourage the involvement of the patient in problem solving as much as possible.

It is helpful to house insulin-treated patients in a common unit, if this is possible, safe, and consistent with providing access to other programs at the correctional institution. Common housing not only can facilitate mealtimes and medication administration, but also potentially provides an opportunity for diabetes self-management education to be reinforced by fellow patients.


Nutrition counseling and menu planning are an integral part of the multidisciplinary approach to diabetes management in correctional facilities. A combination of education, interdisciplinary communication, and monitoring food intake aids patients in understanding their medical nutritional needs and can facilitate diabetes control during and after incarceration.

Nutrition counseling for patients with diabetes is considered an essential component of diabetes self-management. People with diabetes should receive individualized MNT as needed to achieve treatment goals, preferably provided by a registered dietitian familiar with the components of MNT for persons with diabetes.

Educating the patient, individually or in a group setting, about how carbohydrates and food choices directly affect diabetes control is the first step in facilitating self-management. This education enables the patient to identify better food selections from those available in the dining hall and commissary. Such an approach is more realistic in a facility where the patient has the opportunity to make food choices.

The easiest and most cost-effective means to facilitate good outcomes in patients with diabetes is instituting a heart-healthy diet as the master menu. There should be consistent carbohydrate content at each meal, as well as a means to identify the carbohydrate content of each food selection. Providing carbohydrate content of food selections and/or providing education in assessing carbohydrate content enables patients to meet the requirements of their individual MNT goals. Commissaries should also help in dietary management by offering healthy choices and listing the carbohydrate content of foods.

The use of insulin or oral medications may necessitate snacks in order to avoid hypoglycemia. These snacks are a part of such patients?? medical treatment plans and should be prescribed by medical staff.

Timing of meals and snacks must be coordinated with medication administration as needed to minimize the risk of hypoglycemia, as discussed more fully in the MEDICATION section of this document. For further information, see the ADA Position Statement “Nutrition Principles and Recommendations in Diabetes”.


All patients must have access to prompt treatment of hypo- and hyperglycemia. Correctional staff should be trained in the recognition and treatment of hypo- and hyperglycemia, and appropriate staff should be trained to administer glucagon. After such emergency care, patients should be referred for appropriate medical care to minimize risk of future decompensation.

Institutions should implement a policy requiring staff to notify a physician of all CBG results outside of a specified range, as determined by the treating physician (e.g., <50 or >350 mg/dl).


Severe hyperglycemia in a person with diabetes may be the result of intercurrent illness, missed or inadequate medication, or corticosteroid therapy. Correctional institutions should have systems in place to identify and refer to medical staff all patients with consistently elevated blood glucose as well as intercurrent illness.

The stress of illness in those with type 1 diabetes frequently aggravates glycemic control and necessitates more frequent monitoring of blood glucose (e.g., every 4??6 h). Marked hyperglycemia requires temporary adjustment of the treatment program and, if accompanied by ketosis, interaction with the diabetes care team. Adequate fluid and caloric intake must be ensured. Nausea or vomiting accompanied with hyperglycemia may indicate DKA, a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical care to prevent complications and death. Correctional institutions should identify patients with type 1 diabetes who are at risk for DKA, particularly those with a prior history of frequent episodes of DKA. For further information see “Hyperglycemic Crisis in Diabetes”.


Hypoglycemia is defined as a blood glucose level <60 mg/dl. Severe hypoglycemia is a medical emergency defined as hypoglycemia requiring assistance of a third party and is often associated with mental status changes that may include confusion, incoherence, combativeness, somnolence, lethargy, seizures, or coma. Signs and symptoms of severe hypoglycemia can be confused with intoxication or withdrawal. Individuals with diabetes exhibiting signs and symptoms consistent with hypoglycemia, particularly altered mental status, agitation, and diaphoresis, should have their CBG levels checked immediately.


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Security staff who supervise patients at risk for hypoglycemia (i.e., those on insulin or oral hypoglycemic agents) should be educated in the emergency response protocol for recognition and treatment of hypoglycemia. Every attempt should be made to document CBG before treatment. Patients must have immediate access to glucose tablets or other glucose-containing foods. Hypoglycemia can generally be treated by the patient with oral carbohydrates. If the patient cannot be relied on to keep hypoglycemia treatment on his/her person, staff members should have ready access to glucose tablets or equivalent. In general, 15??20 g oral glucose will be adequate to treat hypoglycemic events. CBG and treatment should be repeated at 15-min intervals until blood glucose levels return to normal (>70 mg/dl).

Staff should have glucagon for intramuscular injection or glucose for intravenous infusion available to treat severe hypoglycemia without requiring transport of the hypoglycemic patient to an outside facility. Any episode of severe hypoglycemia or recurrent episodes of mild to moderate hypoglycemia require reevaluation of the diabetes management plan by the medical staff. In certain cases of unexplained or recurrent severe hypoglycemia, it may be appropriate to admit the patient to the medical unit for observation and stabilization of diabetes management.

Correctional institutions should have systems in place to identify the patients at greater risk for hypoglycemia (i.e., those on insulin or sulfonylurea therapy) and to ensure the early detection and treatment of hypoglycemia. If possible, patients at greater risk of severe hypoglycemia (e.g., those with a prior episode of severe hypoglycemia) may be housed in units closer to the medical unit in order to minimize delay in treatment. 

May 27, 10 • Diabetes mellitus