How does mass incarceration impact our health?

A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.

A community research project explores this question


Voices for Racial Justice works to promote racial equity and end racial disparities in Minnesota. We are engaged in a community-based research project about the impact that mass incarceration has on health. This project is funded by the Minnesota Department of Health (Advancing Health Equity Initiative).

The Eighth Amendment to our U.S. Constitution prohibits the federal government from imposing excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment. A 1976 Supreme Court decision, Estelle v. Gamble, found that indifference to health needs of incarcerated people constitutes a direct violation of the Eighth Amendment. It is the duty of correctional facilities to provide adequate and professional healthcare to those incarcerated.

How do we define health? The World Health Organization states that social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age. Only 10 percent of our health and well-being is determined by genetics. Another 10 percent is determined by the healthcare system.

That leaves 80 percent of our health and well-being to be determined by social factors, behavior, and our environment. Surprisingly, when we talk about health outcomes, we only focus on genetics and the healthcare system and ignore a larger part of what goes into defining our health and well-being.

According to the Department of Corrections, five percent of the prison population is serving life sentences in the United States. This means that we can expect more than 90 percent of the prison population to be released at some point.

Overcrowding, solitary confinement, lack of trauma-informed health providers, and overall lack of compassion can lead to poor health outcomes for many of those incarcerated. All of this can result in decreased psychological well-being and increased risk of suicide.

Coupled with long wait periods for those seeking professional health care and cost of visits being disproportional to the earned wages of those incarcerated, it can be challenging to have health and well-being needs met in the prison system. These conditions are exaggerated for those with chronic health conditions, chemical dependency, and mental health conditions.

It is important to hear the stories and experiences of those who have been incarcerated as it relates to their health and well-being. This is a call for any of those who have been incarcerated and have stories to share about their experience and the impact on their health and well-being.

We know that incarceration affects families in the community as well, and we are interested in hearing their stories. We would like to provide a space for you to be heard and to share those experiences through a questionnaire, in-person interviews, and listening sessions.

If you are interested in participating, or know someone who is interested, please have them contact Voices for Racial Justice at 612-746-4224 or via email at


Octavia Smith is a research associate in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to To learn more about the organization’s work, visit