Originally published in the March issue of the Notes on Antiracism, Justice, and Equity newsletter.
The U.S. has the highest prison population in the world, 13% higher than the rate of the second highest country. Inmates are overwhelmingly Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor, and disabled. In Minnesota, Black and Native people represent 5% and 1% of the population respectively, but 36% of the state’s prison population. Nationally, 1 in 81 Black adults in the U.S. is serving time in state prison (in WI, this number jumps to 1 in 36).
We know that prisons destabilize families and communities, compounding existing disparities. Even after people have served their time, they are not free. Many are sent back to impoverished communities, where they are often barred from working, renting or purchasing a home, taking out loans for college, voting, or serving on juries. A conviction for one crime can become a life sentence of disenfranchisement from citizenship. Noting the layered injustices of the prison industrial complex — a system that profits from criminalizing and incarcerating people — in 2020 APHA recommended “abolishing carceral systems and building in their stead just and equitable structures that advance the public’s health.”
Locking people in cages or overpolicing is not how we heal people or keep our communities safe. We can accomplish that by making sure people have their needs met. Those who are a danger to others or themselves often need culturally relevant medical interventions, and their families often need respite and support. Victims need to be heard and given resources and in some cases, reparations. We can redirect resources from the places that enact harm to those that cultivate healing. We can stop crime by preventing it, just like we stop illness by going upstream to identify the causes of it. This is the public health way.
Today, I feel abolition of the prison industrial complex is not the answer, but it is one answer. A comprehensive approach to crime prevention, response, and restoration is how I envision us moving forward. This is antiracism work, and this is public health.
During today’s Justice in Public Health series, Amber Akemi Piatt will continue the conversation around this important topic. During the webinar, Piatt will provide an overview of the health research on the criminal legal and immigration systems, as well as current abolitionist advocacy and organizing to improve individual, family, and community health. Join us for this important event and be part of the conversation.
Director, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sign up to receive the monthly Notes on Antiracism, Justice, and Equity newsletter.