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The United States holds five percent of the world’s population but houses almost 22 percent of the world’s prisoner population. Consequently, the topic of mass incarceration has taken the spotlight in social issues. But mass incarceration isn’t just a social concern, it’s also a public health crisis. 

Prisoners often represent the unhealthiest members of our society because many come from poor communities that have lower access to health care. As a result of health care inaccessibility and physical and mental triggers, these communities have higher rates of drug abuse, diseases, and mental illnesses. Increases in excessively punitive drug laws have placed many drug abusers in prison, where they rarely have access to rehabilitation programs. Similarly, the criminal justice system absorbs many mentally ill prisoners, who rarely receive professional care.

Abdul Osman, who spent time in jail, attends a rally in Brooklyn to support the district attorney’s goal to stop prosecuting minor marijuana offenses. Over the last 15 years, more than 500,000 New Yorkers were arrested for these offenses.

Image Credit: Spencer Platt / Staff

The criminal justice system attempts to solve health problems such as addiction and mental illness by punishment rather than health care. To make matters worse, former prisoners often return to the same impoverished communities they came from. There, they are once again exposed to negative physical and mental stressors, which increases the likelihood they retread the same path that took them to the prison.

Former prisoners, despite completing their sentence, are also at an economic disadvantage, which further exacerbates their negative stressors. Prison records make it difficult to qualify for welfare such as food stamps, public housing, and student loans as well as impacting their ability to find a job. Employment often comes with health care coverage that could begin to address a former prisoner’s health issues, but employers are reluctant to hire former prisoners.

Lack of employment isn’t the only way former prisoners are denied vital health care. Ninety percent of states have passed policies that terminate an inmate’s Medicaid benefits once their prison sentence starts. Although current and ex-prisoners are arguably in need of health care more than other segments of the population, they are more often denied access.

Congress has taken action to address the negative health effects of mass incarceration by providing more coverage for drug abuse and mental illness through the Affordable Care Act. Future steps may include reducing punitive drug laws, increasing psychiatric and rehabilitation services in prison, and reinstating welfare benefits for ex-prisoners.

Featured Image Credit: Spencer Platt / Staff


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