Last month, House Democrats introduced the End Solitary Confinement Act, which places restrictions on the harmful practice of isolating incarcerated individuals alone in a cell for long periods. Solitary confinement is not only inhumane but has been linked to premature death, even following release from incarceration. We urgently need this and other policies to reform mass incarceration — not only because of its negative effects on the health of those behind bars, but also because of its broader health toll on families and communities of those incarcerated.
As a health policy expert whose mother was incarcerated two decades ago, I’m personally concerned about the lasting effects mass incarceration will have on my own family’s health. And on a larger scale, I’m worried that the harms of mass incarceration will long outlive me and my generation.
Fifty years ago, the U.S. began a sociopolitical experiment unlike any other in history. Initiated by Richard Nixon and built by Ronald Reagan, mass incarceration grew from “tough-on-crime” policies and the War on Drugs, leading to the U.S. incarcerating more people per capita than any other country in the world.
Since then, millions of Americans — disproportionately Black, brown and poor — have been incarcerated at some point. Today, half of Americans have had an immediate family member be incarcerated. We have come to accept mass incarceration as a fact of American life.
I am one of the millions of Americans whose life has been affected by mass incarceration. Twenty years ago, my mother was arrested and incarcerated in rural North Carolina, resulting in a series of changes that upset the everyday lives of our family. For me, it meant moving to a new school in a different state, as well as the emotional processing that comes with a parent disappearing behind bars. The system, which I thought was meant to protect us, tore our family apart.
Research shows that for every year an American spends behinds bars, their life expectancy is reduced by two years. My colleagues and I found that having a family member incarcerated also reduces your life expectancy by over two years. Even just living in a neighborhood with high incarceration rates is associated with a shorter life of nearly three years.
Amid a backdrop of declining U.S. life expectancy, we can’t ignore the role of mass incarceration or expect to see any improvements without addressing its health harms.
As a scientist, I find the research persuasive. As a human whose family has experienced incarceration, I find it terrifying. With each new study, I fixated on the mental math, calculating how each of my family member’s life may be shortened, docking off years from our lives based on how much incarceration has affected us individually. My life shortened by an estimated two years, my brother’s by five.
Beyond the health effects, the consequences of mass incarceration — on a moral, societal and economic level — are massive. Structural racism underlies the foundations of mass incarceration, creating deep economic and health inequities that harm Black communities. It creates and exacerbates poverty and homelessness. All of this without achieving public safety.
The U.S. spends more than $80 billion on its prisons and jails each year. Including indirect costs, such as bail fees and costs to families (such as commissary funds), that figure goes up to $182 billion. Most of these costs come from taxpayers’ pockets.
Mass incarceration and its consequences seem insurmountable. Current movements to reform the conditions of confinement and criminal legal procedures could make a major difference. Beginning with restrictions on solitary confinement is a good start, but it is not the only option. For example, Massachusetts is considering eliminating the option of people being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, potentially opening the door for many people to be released back to their communities. Last month, Illinois became the first state in the nation to eliminate cash bail as a condition of pretrial release. These measures may seem extreme to some, but anyone who has been touched directly by the criminal justice system recognizes the urgency of the issue.
Mass incarceration takes an enormous toll on our nation’s fiscal, physical and mental health. Reforms to promote a more effective, more humane criminal legal system can save and lengthen lives, especially for those from marginalized communities. Although I know my life and the lives of those closest to me may be cut short, I remain hopeful that the system will be better at the end of my life than it is today.
Tyler Harvey is an MD/PhD (Public Health) student at the Yale School of Medicine and a Public Voices Fellow with TheOpEdProject in partnership with the AcademyHealth.