The U.S. is the world leader in putting people behind bars. According to its own statistics, the U.S. incarcerates people at a greater rate than anyone else on the planet. With more than two million people in prison, mass incarceration in the U.S. has gotten so out of hand that taxpayers spend roughly $2 billion every year to keep up.
Mass incarceration is a crisis in a lot of ways. Some are obvious, like the impact it has on human and civil rights, Americans’ freedom and even government budgets. But others are more subtle. One of the most widely overlooked crises created by mass incarceration in the U.S. is the public health crisis.
What does it mean when people say that mass incarceration is a public health crisis?
People in U.S. prisons and jails are more likely to have chronic health problems than those on the outside. Examples of these health problems include diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV and more. They’re also more likely to suffer from substance abuse, mental-health issues and other problems.
When people say that mass incarceration is a public health crisis, they’re talking about how jails and prisons can’t address these health problems. For most incarcerated people, receiving healthcare in jail or prison isn’t an option. And, even when it is, it is low-quality care and difficult to access.
What makes things worse is that prisons often charge co-pays for in-prison healthcare visits. If you’re making between 14 and 63 cents an hour, a $5 co-pay can keep you from getting the care you need. Or, if you get the care, it comes at the cost of staying in touch with friends and family.
Being unable to pay for care doesn’t just impact the prisoner that can’t pay. If an incarcerated person has an infectious disease but can’t afford care, they’re more likely to hide it. This, in turn, causes the disease to spread to others in the same position. And it can lead to a prison-wide outbreak.
It’s hard to imagine a better example of this dangerous possibility than when it comes to COVID-19.
How has COVID-19 made things worse?
The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed jails and prisons across the U.S. The failure has been so bad that Prison Policy Initiative gave almost every state an “F” for their response during the pandemic. The “best” state in the country, New Jersey, only got a “C.”
According to COVID Prison Project data, there have been nearly 500,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 2,500 COVID-19 deaths in U.S. prisons. Prisons often don’t have masks available, can’t or won’t allow social distancing and are struggling to reach adequate vaccination rates.
COVID-19 has demonstrated how prisons can’t handle health crises. But this has been the reality for decades. Incarcerated people tell us how prison doctors would often only prescribe ibuprofen, give them Wikipedia printouts or tell them to drink water. So, even before COVID-19, mass incarceration was a public health crisis.
Mass incarceration is a public health crisis. Incarcerated people are more likely to have chronic health problems. And, for the most part, incarcerated can’t get the care they need to address them. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this problem more obvious than it has ever been. But it doesn’t seem like much is changing.