People in prisons and jails are disproportionately likely to have chronic health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, and HIV, as well as substance use and mental health problems. Nevertheless, correctional healthcare is low-quality and difficult to access. It's also expensive: Astonishingly, most prisons charge incarcerated people a co-pay for doctor visits.
The downstream effects — for both incarcerated people and the general public — have been disastrous: Mass incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy by 5 years.
Below is our key research into the public health effects of incarceration:
Reports and campaigns
We evaluated departments of corrections on their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Includes an appendix providing details about each state.
Our report shows that over half a million cases of COVID-19 in the summer of 2020 — or 13% of all cases — were attributable to the passage of the virus into, through, and out of crowded prisons and jails.
We worked with the ACLU to evaluate — and score — all 50 states’ criminal justice responses to the pandemic. Most states have ignored both the obvious risks to incarcerated people and the warnings of public health experts.
In addition to our two major reports on COVID-19 in prisons and jails, we've published a list of policy recommendations, an explainer on social distancing behind bars, a powerful fact sheet, and much more. We're also tracking where pandemic-related policy changes are taking place.
At least 4.9 million people go to county and city jails each year, our national analysis shows. We find that people who go to jail - particularly those who go more than once a year - are more likely to have preexisting health problems.
- Unsupportive environments and limited policies: Pregnancy, postpartum, and birth during incarceration, by Leah Wang, August 19, 2021
Recent data offers an unprecedented, detailed look at pregnancy and postpartum experiences in prison. Findings indicate that jails, prisons, and youth facilities have yet to adequately recognize pregnancy and postpartum needs either in policy or in practice.
- New data: People with incarcerated loved ones have shorter life expectancies and poorer health, by Emily Widra, July 12, 2021
A new study shows how strongly incarceration is associated with family member health and well-being.
- Rise in jail deaths is especially troubling as jail populations become more rural and more female, by Leah Wang, June 23, 2021
New data show record high deaths of people locked up in jail, as jail populations have shifted toward smaller, rural jails and growing numbers of women.
- New data: State prisons are increasingly deadly places, by Leah Wang and Wendy Sawyer, June 8, 2021
New data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that state prisons are seeing alarming rises in suicide, homicide, and drug and alcohol-related deaths.
- Research Roundup: Incarceration can cause lasting damage to mental health, by Katie Rose Quandt and Alexi Jones, May 13, 2021
Incarceration can trigger and worsen symptoms of mental illness — and those effects can last long after someone leaves the prison gates.
- The research is clear: Solitary confinement causes long-lasting harm, by Tiana Herring, December 8, 2020
At the International Symposium on Solitary Confinement, researchers and formerly incarcerated people made it clear that isolation causes severe and permanent damage.
- New data: Solitary confinement increases risk of premature death after release, by Andrea Fenster, October 13, 2020
Any amount of time spent in solitary confinement increases the risk of death after release from prison, including deaths by suicide, homicide, and opioid overdose.
- Compassionate release was never designed to release large numbers of people, by Emily Widra and Wanda Bertram, May 29, 2020
With help from artist Kevin Pyle, we explain why very few people who apply for compassionate release are approved — even during a pandemic.
- Deaths in state prisons are on the rise, new data shows. What can be done?, by Emily Widra, February 13, 2020
Prison systems have shown they are unprepared and unwilling to care for an aging prison population - whether by improving healthcare or expanding compassionate release.
- New BJS report reveals staggering number of preventable deaths in local jails, by Alexi Jones, February 13, 2020
In 2016, over 1,000 people died in local jails - many the tragic result of healthcare and jail systems that fail to address serious health problems among the jail population, and of the trauma of incarceration itself.
- Cruel and unusual punishment: When states don’t provide air conditioning in prison by Alexi Jones, June 18, 2019
13 states in the hottest parts of the country lack universal A/C in their prisons. We explain the consequences.
- The steep cost of medical co-pays in prison puts health at risk by Wendy Sawyer, April 19, 2017
For some incarcerated people, a visit to the doctor can cost almost an entire month's pay, deterring people from seeking the care they need.
- Food for thought: Prison food is a public health problem by Wendy Sawyer, March 3, 2017
We connect the dots between prison food, nutrition, and public health. The takeaway? Prison food is not just gross; it is often nutritionally inadequate.
- We know how to prevent opioid overdose deaths for people leaving prison. So why are prisons doing nothing? by Maddy Troilo, December 7, 2018
Treatment programs offer promising results for recently incarcerated people, but prisons aren't using them.
- Incarceration shortens life expectancy by Emily Widra, June 26, 2017
Each year in prison takes 2 years off an individual's life expectancy. With over 2.3 million people locked up, mass incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy by 5 years.
- The life-threatening reality of short jail stays by Bernadette Rabuy, December 22, 2016
New BJS data shows suicide is still the leading cause of death in local jails. And most suicides occur shortly after jail admission.
- BJS report: Drug abuse and addiction at the root of 21% of crimes by Wendy Sawyer, June 28, 2017
Responding to substance use with punishment, rather than as a public health problem, is one of our most harmful criminal justice policy failures.
- The parallel epidemics of incarceration & HIV in the Deep South by Emily Widra, September 8, 2017
HIV disproportionately impacts communities that are already marginalized by poverty, inadequate resources, discrimination -- and mass incarceration.
- Unpacking the connections between race, incarceration, and women's HIV rates by Wendy Sawyer and Emily Widra, May 8, 2017
Current research points to an unexpected contributor to the high rates of HIV infection among Black women: the mass incarceration of Black men.
- Police, courts, jails, and prisons all fail disabled people by Elliot Oberholtzer, August 23, 2017
Disabled people are overrepresented in all interactions with the criminal justice system, and at all points, the system is failing them.
- BJS data shows graying of prisons by Meredith Booker, May 19, 2016
The Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report exploring the fastest growing portion of the prison population, those 55 or older.
- Aging alone: Uncovering the risk of solitary confinement for people over 45 by Lucius Couloute, May 2, 2017
As prisons continue to get grayer, policymakers must understand that denying older people access to sunlight, exercise, and human interaction is both inhumane and fiscally irresponsible.
- New York State's elderly prison boom: An update by Maddy Troilo, November 1, 2018
Despite recent positive reforms, New York's elderly prison population continues to grow.
- Analysis shows people in NYC jails would be better served in the community by Bernadette Rabuy, November 16, 2016
A recent analysis finds that the most frequently incarcerated in New York City jails struggle with mental illness and are locked up for low-level offenses.
- It's time for Massachusetts to stop shackling incarcerated women who are giving birth by Leah Sakala, December 12, 2013
This testimony helped Massachusetts become the 21st state to pass legislation to end the inhumane practice of shackling mothers who are pregnant or giving birth while incarcerated.
- "Do no harm" or "Do no expense"?: Ohio's prisoners are dying from inadequate medical care by Peter Wagner, November 24, 2003
Ohio Department of Corrections' health care budget cuts and poor oversight is compromising the quality of care.
- Incarceration is not a solution to mental illness by Peter Wagner, April 1, 2000
Originally published in the April 2000 issue of Mass Dissent.
One of the worst criminal justice policy failures — responding to drug use with punishment rather than care — also puts public health at risk.
Tens of millions of people are dealing with the "collateral consequences" of punishment: effects such as homelessness that last long after someone has served their sentence. These harms also impact public health.
Visits and phone calls mitigate the harmful effects of prolonged isolation behind bars. But jails and prisons make staying in touch difficult, particularly for poor families.
Didn't find what you were looking for? We also curate a database of virtually all the empirical criminal justice research available online. See the sections of our Research Library on public health, mental health, and conditions of confinement.