Where the previous segment focused on the positives of expanding health care for the incarcerated, Dr. William Alex Pridemore, criminologist at Georgia State University, discusses the increased health risk that prisoners face.
During the last four decades the imprisonment rate in the United States more than quadrupled, and we now have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
My recent research showed that relative to men who had not been incarcerated, men who had were more than twice as likely to experience early death. I call this the mortality penalty of incarceration.
One reason for this is exposure to infectious diseases. Rates of tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV are much higher among the prison population. And prison structure and culture create efficient conditions for spreading infections, including group quarters, crowded conditions, poor nutrition, shared bathroom facilities, and amateur tattooing.
A second reason is stress. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, and this perversely increases the inmate’s vulnerability at precisely the time when exposure to infectious diseases is greatest, during imprisonment. Upon release from prison, stress continues due to the social stigma, poor employment prospects, and unstable relationships created by incarceration.
A third reason is indirect: the disruption of pro-social bonds. Social networks and social support from friends and family provide important protective effects against negative health outcomes.
Incarceration, however, has corrosive effects on social bonds like employment, marriage, friendships, and other forms of social integration.
Mass imprisonment was a political decision. It has become a tremendous financial burden to taxpayers, and the evidence shows that many of the unintended consequences of incarceration go well beyond what we think about when we think about punishment.
America’s struggle with mass incarceration is now receiving greater political and public reconsideration. The mortality penalty of incarceration should be part of that debate.