Mass incarceration, public health, and widening inequality in the USA

The Lancet
Apr 08, 2017 Volume 389 Number 10077 p1369-1490 e5

America: Equity and Equality in Health
Mass incarceration, public health, and widening inequality in the USA
Christopher Wildeman, Emily A Wang
In this Series paper, we examine how mass incarceration shapes inequality in health. The USA is the world leader in incarceration, which disproportionately affects black populations. Nearly one in three black men will ever be imprisoned, and nearly half of black women currently have a family member or extended family member who is in prison. However, until recently the public health implications of mass incarceration were unclear. Most research in this area has focused on the health of current and former inmates, with findings suggesting that incarceration could produce some short-term improvements in physical health during imprisonment but has profoundly harmful effects on physical and mental health after release. The emerging literature on the family and community effects of mass incarceration points to negative health impacts on the female partners and children of incarcerated men, and raises concerns that excessive incarceration could harm entire communities and thus might partly underlie health disparities both in the USA and between the USA and other developed countries. Research into interventions, policies, and practices that could mitigate the harms of incarceration and the post-incarceration period is urgently needed, particularly studies using rigorous experimental or quasi-experimental designs.