As one component of the Mailman School’s focus on urban health, tremendous intellectual energy has been invested in understanding the epidemic of mass incarceration in the United States. The so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” the racial disparities in U.S. prisons, and the health effects of mass incarceration on communities underscore complex social and environmental factors facing America’s cities. The U.S. is home to only five percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. African-American males have a one in three lifetime risk of being incarcerated for at least one year, while young people with incarcerated parents are at far greater risk of experiencing substance abuse, poverty, abuse, or neglect in their lifetime.
Writing in Huffington Post, Dean Linda P. Fried said, “a public health concern warrants a public health response.” The School’s Incarceration Prevention Initiative, which was created to draw on areas of expertise within departments of Epidemiology, Health Policy and Management, Population and Family Health, and Sociomedical Sciences, serves as a focal point of scholarship seeking to identify how to reduce risk of incarceration for individuals and lessen its harmful effects on urban neighborhoods. In May 2014, a national conference sponsored by the Tow Foundation, “A Public Health Approach to Incarceration: Opportunities for Action,” introduced the initiative to representatives of schools and programs of public health, galvanizing interest and enthusiasm about a partnership with scholars of anthropology, criminal justice, and psychology, and determining that public health must play a part in addressing a national crisis.
At the Mailman School, faculty study the links between poverty and incarceration risk, the increased risk for transmission of HIV and other STDs in America’s corrections systems, and the absence of mental health services within prisons. Of particular interest, Lisa Metsch, Stephen Smith Professor and Chair of Sociomedical Sciences, is co-principal investigator on an NIH-funding training program to conduct bio-socio-behavioral HIV and drug abuse prevention, treatment, and care research in the criminal justice system. Robert Fullilove, professor of Sociomedical Sciences, is one of the leaders (and an instructor) at the Bard Prison Initiative, which enables women and men to earn a Bachelor’s degree while incarcerated. In 2015-16, the Mailman School will receive support from the Ford Foundation to continue mobilization of our peer institutions to focus a public health lens on all aspects of mass incarceration with an eye towards improving health for incarcerated populations and the communities to which they return.