Bonita Gooch Community Voice

The unhealthy legacy of imprisonment

After remaining relatively stable for 50 years, the population in America’s prison system has increased approximately fivefold during the last 50 years. Today, the USA incarcerates more of its citizens and at a higher-level (700/100,000) than any other country.  

The expansion of the penal system has affected all demographic groups, however, the impact has been most acute for disadvantaged minorities and minority communities, where the rate of incarceration is five to eight times that of “similarly situated” Whites.  Black Americans are imprisoned by far in greater numbers than any other demographic group.  Nearly one in three black men will be imprisoned in their lifetime, and nearly half of black women currently have a family member or extended family member who is in prison.

Until recently, the public health implications of mass incarceration weren’t generally an issue of concern.  However, a limited amount of recent research has focused on the health of current and former inmates.  Even further, research has begun to look at the impact of mass incarceration on the negative health impacts on the female partners  and children of incarcerated men, with the results raising concerns that excessive incarceration can harm entire communities.

Study findings tell a consistent story: paternal incarceration is associated with behavioral and mental health problems throughout childhood, a host of poor outcomes including increased prevalence of substance misuse in adolescence and adulthood.  The most wide-ranging assessment of the effect of parental — mostly paternal — incarceration used data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, links to a host of negative health outcomes among children, including self-rated health, depression, anxiety, asthma, and obesity, with the negative consequence continuing throughout adolescence and early adulthood.

Women whose partners are incarcerated experience substantial mental health deterioration and the typical loss of household income reflects in similar health discrepancies experienced by poor and low-income families and individuals.

Soaring costs, overcrowding of prisons and jails, and a spotlight on overly aggressive policing in minority communities have helped gain more agreement that mass incarceration has failed.  A small shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing has led to a small decrease in the prison population, a fall of 2.9% since its peak in 2009 but more aggressive reform is needed.

The pace of criminal justice reform could be quickened with more sweeping reforms in drug sentencing, reduced admissions of technical parole violators, expanded community corrections for those convicted of low-level property and drug crimes, and medical paroles for sick and elderly inmates.  Individuals concerned about mass incarceration — and health disparities — should advocate for such reforms, but simply shrinking the imprisoned population isn’t enough.

More must be done to assist those released from prison by providing more opportunities and conditions for these individuals to improve their lives.  Currently, policies and practices in both government and corporate environments make it difficult for the previously incarcerated to equitably assimilate into the world around them.

Finally, mitigating mass incarceration will require looking at its root cause as well and the forces that seek to maintain it.

Bonita Gooch, Publisher
The Community Voice