I need your help. I co-founded the Prison Policy Initiative to put the problem of mass incarceration — and the perverse incentives that fuel it — on the national agenda. Over the last 17 years, our campaigns have protected our democracy from the prison system and protected the poorest families in this country from the predatory prison telephone industry. Our reports untangle the statistics and recruit new allies.

But now, more than ever, we need your help to put data & compassion into the conversation.

Thank you.
—Peter Wagner, Executive DirectorDonate

Public health

People in prisons and jails struggle disproportionately with substance use, mental illness, and other health problems. But all too often, 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. Prison and jail conditions, meanwhile, are often health disasters.

The downstream effects are clear: Mass incarceration has shortened the overall U.S. life expectancy by 5 years. These harms extend beyond incarcerated people to their families and communities. Below is our key research into the public health effects of incarceration:



report thumbnailArrest, Release, Repeat: How police and jails are misused to respond to social problems

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 disproportionately likely to have preexisting health problems.


  • 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.

  • issue thumbnailDrug policy

    One of the worst criminal justice policy failures — responding to drug use with punishment rather than care — also puts public health at risk.

    issue thumbnailCollateral consequences

    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.

    issue thumbnailCommunication and contact

    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.

    Research Library

    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.

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