The Health Equity Blog’s mission is to contribute to the discussion of health policy using evidence and research, to explore the opportunities for health equity through policy change, to raise awareness about health disparities, and to increase public advocacy for health equality.

According to the CDC, “Health equity is achieved when every person has the opportunity to ‘attain his or her full health potential’ and no one is ‘disadvantaged from achieving this potential because of social position or other socially determined circumstances.’”

Achievement of full health potential is necessary in all aspects of life – from running errands to relationships with loved ones. Some people are born into environments that limit their ability to achieve their full health potential. We believe that because society created many health inequalities, society can also fix them.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Prison Problem

Currently, there are more than 2.4 million people in prison in the United States - that means one out of every 100 people is imprisoned.  Although the US has 5% of the world population, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners.  It costs $21,000 a year to house one prisoner in a minimum security prison and $33,000 per year in a maximum security prison.  All in all, the US spends about $74 billion a year on prisons.  Whether you think that amount of money is appropriate to spend on imprisoning people or not, the reality is that what we spend on prisons, limits what we can spend on other things like job creation and education. With 68% of prisoners not finishing high school, we might connect lack of education with an increased likelihood to commit crime.  Below is a chart comparing how much it costs to educate a student or imprison someone in 40 states.  It is clear which one is more cost effective.050713-education-vs-prison-costs.png

The cost of keeping someone in jail is not the only issue when it comes to how often the US imprisons people.  We have a serious issue with racial disparities in prison populations with African Americans being imprisoned 6 times as often as white Americans.  African Americans and Hispanics are 25% of the US population but 58% of the prison population.  Part of this disparity is due to the effect of race on sentencing.  Studies have shown that black and hispanic men tend to receive harsher penalties for the same crime than other populations, among other disparities (for more more info click here).
We also have high rates of recidivism (67.5% are rearrested within 3 years of release) in this country which is not surprising when a person’s ability to find a job, get housing or qualify for a loan are all negatively affected by having a criminal record.  It is no wonder that the highest recidivism rates are for those who committed property crimes like car theft, larceny, selling/possession of stolen property and burglary.

So to sum up, we are spending a great deal of money, to the detriment of other causes like education and job creation, to imprison people, but it isn’t stopping those people from committing future crimes and it disproportionately harms minorities.  Maybe it is time for us to re-think the way we address this issue.  New York, Washington and Texas have done just that by doing things like

My own home state of Massachusetts currently has a campaign called Jobs Not Jails to reform our own criminal justice system which is currently on par with French Guiana and Kazakhstan.

What Can You Do

If you live in Massachusetts, check out Jobs Not Jails.  If you live in another state, find out if there is an equivalent campaign or start your own!


  1. What a good summary of social injustices created by the U.S. prison system and strategies for reform.

    You mention the burden of prisons on taxpayers and on other social services such as education. I was shocked to learn of another way that money plays into the tragedy of over-incarceration. Prison guards' unions such as the California Correction Peace Officer's Association (CCPOA) lobby for stricter sentencing laws that will provide them with more prisoners and more jobs. The CCPOA even used its numerous members and significant budget to push through a Three Strikes Law in California which forces some non-violent repeat-offenders to serve 25 years in prison. The union has been successful in increasing the populations in California prisons.

    I have also heard the Foulcauldian argument that U.S. governments use prisons to manage not only criminals, but the populations of towns struggling with unemployment. Especially in midwestern towns where the company that once employed many of the residents has left, the state can build a prison to employ residents who would otherwise be jobless. The state then needs a steady flow of prisoners to combat unemployment and migration out of shrinking towns.

    It seems that often prisons serve other purposes than justice, public safety and rehabilitation at the expense of marginalized populations who serve time.

  2. Read more here: http://mic.com/articles/41531/union-of-the-snake-how-california-s-prison-guards-subvert-democracy