The United States is the world's leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons and jails — a 500% increase over the last forty years.1 According to the Vera Institute of Justice, smaller communities have largely driven growth as incarceration rates and jail admissions far outpace those of larger counties.2 Even in relatively small jails, there are stark disparate impacts.
Incarceration is not an isolated event confined to the individual and time served, but a cog in a complex system and a major social determinant of health (SDOH) for individuals and communities. Incarceration can have long lasting, detrimental effects on family unity, economic opportunity, educational achievement, and housing stability – the very conditions that shape the health of individuals, families and communities, and that reinforce the pathways leading to or away from incarceration.3
Despite the drastic increase on mass incarceration, there is general bipartisan consensus that prison is the least effective place to rehabilitate offenders. Widely acknowledged as a significant public policy failure, prison increases the likelihood that inmates will reoffend.4 While incarceration is a mechanism to punish criminal offenses, it can also affect the health and well-being of those currently incarcerated, those with a history of incarceration, and their families and communities.5 The rapid growth of rural jails has highlighted the importance of implementing strategies that focus on reducing the number of people being sent to and held in state and federal prisons.
1 “The Sentencing Project” 2021. Retrieved from https://www.sentencingproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/Trends-in-US-Corrections.pdf.
2 Subramanian, R., Henrichson, C., Kang-Brown, J., 2015. “In Our Own Backyard: Confronting Growth and Disparities in American Jails.” Vera Institute of Justice.
3 “Understanding the Impacts of Incarceration on Health.” 2016. Retrieved from https://www.rethinkhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/ReThink-Health-March-17-Report-1.pdf.
4 “Prison Reform: Reducing Recidivism by Strengthening the Federal Bureau of Prisons” 2021. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/archives/prison-reform.
5 “Incarceration | Healthy People 2020” 2021. Retrieved from https://www.healthypeople.gov/2020/topics-objectives/topic/social-determinants-health/interventions-resources/incarceration.