A complex array of laws, policies, and practices—coupled with the legacy of systemic racism—has resulted in an epidemic of incarceration in the United States. The nation, with 5% of the world’s population, houses almost 25% of the world’s prisoners. American criminal justice and drug policy accounts for much of the phenomenon known as mass incarceration. But who we incarcerate has been shaped by national health policy and the failure of the country’s public health system to provide adequate access to healthcare in the community for low-income individuals, simultaneously fueling the cycle of recidivism. Incarcerated Americans are overwhelmingly from low-income communities, and far more likely to have a chronic or infectious disease, substance use disorder, or mental illness than their non-incarcerated peers. They often lack access to routine, preventive care, meaning that for too many, their mental health and substance use disorders remain untreated, leading to involvement with the criminal justice system. At the intersection of justice and health policy a complex public health and human rights crisis has emerged—and in order to effectively address that crisis and decrease the number of justice-involved women and men on a sustainable basis, we must not only reform our criminal justice system but we must also ensure that these individuals have ready access to medical and behavioral healthcare as well as necessary social services/supports in the community.
The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights was established in 2005 to act as a hub for the innovative correctional health research and programming occurring at The Miriam Hospital and other research hospitals in RI and around the country. The Center’s mission is to improve the health and human rights of justice-involved populations through education, advocacy, and research. Today, the Center’s work falls into three core areas: 1) raising awareness at the national and state levels about the healthcare challenges of incarcerated and other justice-involved populations; 2) providing education and training opportunities for college, graduate, and medical students, and encouraging student engagement and leadership in justice issues; and 3) collaborating with local justice system stakeholders to identify and support projects that respond to the intersection of incarceration, recidivism, and public health in the State of Rhode Island.