Our goal is to examine mass incarceration through a public health lens and infuse criminal justice issues into the fabric of public health education. Public health institutions, methodologies, and interventions offer a unique perspective into problems of crime and punishment.

Many individuals who come into contact with the criminal justice system are involved with multiple health, education, and social service institutions that often have few direct links to one another. This creates a disjointed system for public health practitioners, law enforcement, and individuals at all stages of the carceral continuum. Others, conversely, are disconnected from schools and community organizations, including health care providers. Many people in the carceral continuum experience physical and mental health problems that go undiagnosed. Youth who come into contact with the criminal justice system, either through their own experiences or through parental involvement, are seen as particularly vulnerable to health challenges and further involvement with the system.

Understanding Criminal Justice as Public Health Professionals

In addition to addressing the health needs of individuals in the carceral continuum, it is important to understand the implications of criminal justice contact – and mass incarceration in particular – for population health. A growing body of literature suggests that exposure to crime and incarceration are associated with severe physical and mental strains, including stress, trauma, and high rates of chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma, and hypertension. While in incarcerated, individuals also confront the transmission of infectious disease. These adverse consequences not only threaten the wellbeing of individuals personally victimized by the justice system, but their families and communities as well. Both crime and criminal justice may also undermine other social determinants of health and health behaviors, such as school completion and substance use. The extent to which the criminal justice system imposes such adverse effects beyond the effects of crime itself, and the extent to which these adverse effects may be offset by gains to public safety and associated benefits to population health, is not well understood. We hope to bring some clarity to these issues.

The Mailman Incarceration and Public Health Initiative

We seek to integrate our understanding of incarceration and public health, through a variety of efforts within the school, such as:

  • Educating our faculty, research staff, and students about the extent and nature of mass incarceration and population health.

  • Advancing the state of knowledge of the interactions between mass incarceration and population health by creating a shared knowledge base, identifying gaps that may be filled with a public health approach, sponsoring faculty research, recruiting faculty with contributory expertise, and developing training opportunities, such as predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships, for students and junior researchers interested in incarceration and health issues.

  • Developing a clinical practicum to improve the policy relevance of faculty research and expand opportunities for faculty collaboration with community partners.

  • Educating students about the interactions between incarceration and public health through the addition of related courses to the MPH curriculum.

  • Laying groundwork to influence public policy related to incarceration and public health by widely disseminating faculty research on incarceration and population health and facilitating dialogue between faculty researchers and policymakers to improve the policy relevance of this research.