Mass Incarceration as a Public Health Crisis


Mass incarceration is a major public health issue in the United States. With over 2 million people currently incarcerated, the US leads the world by far in incarceration rates. The negative health impacts created by mass incarceration are present not only in prisons, but also in the communities that prisons are located and the communities where adults in custody come from, which are disproportionately lower income communities and communities of color.

It has been more than a year since our lives were first disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Oregon PSR is approaching our first year of engaging in advocacy work concerning the health and safety of people incarcerated in Oregon prisons. In April of last year, we were alerted to the fact that not a single adult in custody in Oregon’s prisons had been released, despite the huge risks posed to incarcerated populations during a global pandemic, and that some were even being incarcerated beyond their official

release date. We wrote letters to Governor Brown expressing our concerns and reached out to local community organizations that were also doing advocacy work relative to the health and safety of adults in custody in Oregon prisons.

Since then, we have worked regularly with the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) to advocate for lessening the state’s prison population to curtail the spread of COVID-19, for adults in custody to have access to flu vaccinations to avoid a ‘twindemic’ in Oregon prisons, and to fund and fill an Oregon State Corrections Ombudsman position. We have co-hosted several webinars with OJRC to inform the public on this work, and we are now working to ensure passage of SB 835/HB 3298, the goal of which is to update Oregon’s compassionate release laws. These laws recognize that it is in the best interest of our communities for incarcerated Oregonians to be released when, due to medical conditions, their continued incarceration is inhumane and no longer furthers the purported goals of their imprisonment.

Through this year of work and research into the impacts of the pandemic on incarcerated Oregonians, it has become increasingly apparent that mass incarceration is, and has been, a public health crisis, and that it will continue to be so even after the pandemic has subsided. Please visit our website to learn more about our work around mass incarceration as a public health issue and to view recordings of our joint webinars with the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

Photo above: A screenshot from our most recent mass incarceration and public health webinar in collaboration with the Oregon Justice Resource Center.

This article was written by Lluvia Merello, Oregon PSR Energy Justice Organizer.