Mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity for individuals, families and communities. That’s why we have included it in the 35 measures RWJF is using to track progress toward becoming a country that values and promotes health everywhere, for everyone.
As coronavirus sweeps our nation it has brought deep-seated health inequities, including those linked to incarceration, to the forefront. Overcrowding and poor sanitation are putting prisoners at risk now more than ever. Persistent, widespread reports that guards and prisoners are testing positive for COVID-19 are especially alarming, and a sobering reminder that quarantines are nearly impossible among incarcerated populations. To address this, many jurisdictions are releasing select prisoners.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has long recognized how incarceration adversely affects health and health equity for prisoners as well as families and communities. With some 2.2 million adults and youth in juvenile detention facilities, prisons, and jails, the United States incarcerates many more people—and a higher percentage of our population—than any other nation in the world. There is widespread agreement that incarceration has adverse effects on health and health equity, not just for prisoners themselves but also for families and communities. That’s why, in 2018, RWJF included it among 35 illustrative measures we are using to track our progress toward building a Culture of Health in America—that is, becoming a country that values health everywhere, for everyone.
The measures linked to RWJF’s Action Framework are intended to be viewed together to identify priorities for investment and collaboration, and to understand progress being made toward realizing our vision. We are also considering the impact each individual measure has on efforts to build a Culture of Health. Because mass incarceration is a pervasive problem that undermines health and health equity, tracking it allows us to examine how it compounds the persistent challenges associated with achieving health equity nationwide and affects communities.
And once prisoners are released and return to their communities, these unmet health needs increase their risk for homelessness, mental health issues, and other health problems. In fact, incarceration has profound and far-reaching effects on health and health equity, not only for prisoners themselves but also for their families and communities.
Those who are incarcerated in our country are among the people with the lowest incomes. In many cases they are behind bars, not because of being found guilty of a crime, but simply because they cannot afford to pay court-imposed fees or make bail.
That cumulative stress is not consistently tracked in health data systems or addressed in comprehensive community health plans. Health leaders, including philanthropy, need better data to understand the lifetime impacts of incarceration on prisoners who are released and the communities to which they return—in many cases, communities that are already stressed by poverty and discrimination.
To read more of Carolyn Miller and Douglas Yeung's article, please click here.