No, mass imprisonment doesn’t actually improve society. in fact, it’s a public health crisis, and it targets POC.

No, mass imprisonment doesn’t actually improve society. in fact, it’s a public health crisis, and it targets POC.

Black and Brown individuals are being jailed for life while Derek Chauvin only got a 22.5 year sentence.

The Myth of Incarceration 

Most of us would expect that removing criminals from a community would result in an overall improvement and better development of the community. However, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that this may not necessarily be the case due to the effects incarceration and imprisonment has on individuals and their communities. 

Not only is incarceration an expensive way to achieve less public safety, there are reports stating that it may in turn increase crime instead. It does so by breaking down the social bonds that guide individuals away from crime, depriving communities of income, limiting economic opportunities, decreasing future income potential and causing the cultivation of a deep resentment towards the legal system.

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Mass Incarceration by the numbers:  

Over the last 40 years, the US prison population increased by 500% due to changes in law and policy that led to an outstanding number of people being sent to prison, this is based on research done by the National Research Council. 

At least 1 in 4 people who went to jail will be arrested again within the same year. This demographic typically includes individuals dealing with poverty, mental illness and/or substance abuse disorders. These problems that they face are only worsened and exacerbated by incarceration.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated as white men and Latinos are 2.5 times more likely. 

The Vera Institute of Justice found that the U.S spends roughly $33 billion on incarceration in 2000 for roughly the same level of public safety achieved in 1975 for $7.4 billion. 

How it become a Public Health crisis: 

The criminal justice system is a contributing factor of health inequity. Its impacts are far-reaching, not only does it affect the wellbeing of those incarcerated, but their loved ones too.

Prisons house many people who are in poor health, with around 40 percent of people in custody having at least one chronic health condition. The unsatisfactory prison environment only makes these conditions worse.

Overcrowding is a main contributing factor of the prison’s poor living conditions. These overpopulated correctional facilities create significant risks to the health and safety of those living and working in these institutions. The problems and impacts of overcrowding are particularly highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, prisoners lack access to vaccines despite the fact that many outbreaks occur in prisons. 

The effects of this could spread beyond prison walls. There is growing evidence that outbreaks in prisons can fuel community spread due to constant traffic of detainees, staff, visitors, vendors and law enforcement in and out of these facilities, as reported by Rod McCullom. These wider outbreaks may especially harm Black communities which are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. 

Moreover, the detrimental effects of incarceration are further extended from physical health to mental health, as mental illnesses are much higher among incarcerated populations as compared to the general population.

Privatisation of Mass Incarceration 

Private prisons in the US privatize necessary services such as medical care, phone calls and commissary.

Despite less than 9% of incarcerated people being held in private prisons, prisons are unloading the costs of incarceration onto incarcerated families. Profit motives should have no place in decisions about incarceration. 

Privatisation of incarceration has also caused the privatisation of healthcare provision. This is concerning, since the needs of the prison population, regarding their physical and mental health, are seen as inferior to those of ordinary citizens. This means that they are less prioritised and can be easily overlooked and neglected, posing a dire risk to their overall health. 

A paper written by Washington State University researchers entitled “Do privately-owned prisons increase incarceration rates?” found that private prisons lead to an average increase of 178 new prisoners per million population per year. The length of sentences also increases when states turn to private prisons, especially non-violent crimes that would allow more leeway in sentencing guidelines. 

The ‘Kids for Cash’ scandal in Pennsylvania, where two judges were bribed by a private prison company to slap a harsher sentence to juvenile offenders instead of probation, helped the company increase occupancy at for-profit detention centres. 

We’ve got more work to do

Derek Chauvin has been sentenced to 22 years and six months for the murder of George Floyd. The average first-time offender convicted of second-degree murder in Minnesota is sentence 12 and a half years in prison. 

Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve, an associate professor of sociology at Brown University, agrees that long prison terms generally do more harm than good but in the absence of meaningful police reform, more innocent lives will be lost at the hands of law enforcement. 

Recently, lawmakers in Washington, DC, have reached a bipartisan agreement on police reform. The issue of reforming qualified immunity was a sticking point in negotiations. 

Racial Disparities in Sentencing

Despite the sentencing of Derek Chauvin to be ‘appropriate’ in the eyes of some advocates, it is hard to ignore the difference of sentencing for him and non-violent offenders. 

Timothy Jackson and Ronald Washington as examples of non-violent offenders being served life sentence without parole (add on: )

The warden of Angola prison, Burl Cain, has spoken out in forthright terms against a system that mandates punishment without any chance of rehabilitation. “It’s ridiculous, because the name of our business is ‘corrections’ – to correct deviant behaviour. If I’m a successful warden and I do my job and we correct the deviant behaviour, then we should have a parole hearing. I need to keep predators in these big old prisons, not dying old men.”

Further reading 

The impacts of mass incarceration is a broad topic of discussion. We encourage you to read further into this topic to educate yourself beyond the scope of this instagram post!

  • Incarceration and Health: A Family Medicine Perspective (Position Paper) by AAFP
  • Prison Policy Initiative Publications by multiple authors 
  • A Multilevel Approach to Understanding Mass Incarceration and Health by Jaquelyn L. Jahn (American Journal of Public Health)
  • Incarceration and Social Inequality by Bruce Western and Becky Petit 
  • The Benefits of Rehabilitative Incarceration by Gordon B. Dahel and Magne Mogstad



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