FORBES | Our nation has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 10 million people incarcerated each year, yet the health of these individuals is truly an afterthought. We must recognize that their experiences and their health outcomes are not contained in a vacuum. These individuals are often struggling with undiagnosed or untreated behavioral health issues and chronic illnesses prior to being jailed or imprisoned, and their health challenges before and after incarceration have a ripple effect that substantially impacts the health and well-being of their families and communities, and ultimately our country.
We know incarcerated Americans are sicker – those who have been jailed or imprisoned are associated with having an elevated risk for nearly all diseases, and they touch a much larger percentage of our population than many realize. In fact, 45% percent of Americans have had an immediate family member who has been incarcerated, and for these Americans, this connection to an incarcerated individual is correlated to a life expectancy that is two years less than for those without a family member who has been incarcerated. The carceral system is taking years off Americans’ lives, even if they haven’t served time.
For these reasons, we at the Aspen Health Strategy Group (AHSG) – which I co-chair with former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – have determined, “Incarceration is a primary source of poor health for individuals, families, communities, and our nation as a whole.” This is the issue AHSG’s 24 multi-sectoral leaders chose to study in 2021 as part of the Health, Medicine & Society program at the Aspen Institute. Tasked with exploring some of our nation’s greatest health challenges and preparing actionable solutions, we lay out five big ideas on “Reducing the Healthy Harms of Incarceration,” which we arrived at after extensive consultation with experts in the field, as well as with those who have personally experienced the health impacts of incarceration.
Our “five big ideas” center around expanding health coverage, providing coordinated care, implementing quality standards, and rethinking certain justice system approaches to prioritize health.