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Incarceration in America – A Public Health Call to Action

HannahAs someone with a background in youth development and a love for promoting maternal and reproductive health, the fields of maternal/child public health and social work come together to encompass many of my deep interests. Professionals in both fields of social work and public health are working to advance individual and community health and healing, advancing social justice and health equity. Social work and public health seem inextricably bound to each other, as both are concerned with the confluence of social justice, physical health, and mental health.

However, throughout this past year in my study of maternal and child public health, the role of the criminal justice system was surprisingly absent from our discussions. As described in our newsletter this month, the criminal justice system has grown exponentially in our country over the past 40 years. In considering issues of health equity, there has been a striking absence of conversation in mainstream public health discourse about the devastating role that mass incarceration has had in communities of color in our country, particularly in African American and Native American communities, and the disproportionate rates of criminalization of young adults who identify as LGBTQ. It is promising to realize that the conversation is beginning to change, with the increase in national publications, and the release of the lecture series by Columbia University that examines the health impact of incarceration on individuals, their families, and communities.

Although our newsletter focuses on women and incarceration, the inequities in our system are even more drastic when looking at the rates of arrest and imprisonment of young men of color. The mass incarceration of young men, particularly young African American men, is inexcusable. Further, the negative impact of incarceration on individual, familial, and community health in our country are only beginning to be explored in public health research. Leaders in the field of public health are well positioned to strengthen collaborations with those working on criminal justice reform, to advocate for change in laws and policies that promote inequity in our communities, and to begin the work of promoting healing in our communities.

I hope that this newsletter and the resources we link to will help to spark more conversations about how public health leaders can become valuable agents of change in addressing the problem of mass incarceration. For more on the work to be done from one of the leaders in criminal justice reform, Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative offers inspiration and insight in his TED talk, “We need to talk about an injustice.”

Hannah Legerton is a graduate intern at the Center for Maternal and Infant Health, and is completing a graduate dual-degree in Maternal Child Public Health and Social Work at UNC, Chapel Hill.

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