Mass Incarceration & Public Health


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

Examples of the intersection of mass incarceration and public health are the overwhelming rates of adults in custody with chronic health problems, substance use issues, the startling suicide rate, and those suffering from mental health illnesses.

In 2020, Oregon PSR began to advocate for Oregon state prisoners out of concerns over COVID-19 and the dire consequences of deadly outbreaks in our state prisons. We seek to prevent the sort of deadly outbreak that happened at the San Quentin State Prison in California.

Since then, we’ve written letters to the Governor’s office, which manages the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC), and have partnered with Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC) for a series of webinars to better educate ourselves and others on the health issues facing people who are incarcerated in Oregon state prisons. Prisons are usually so full that social distancing is impossible and people in prisons are not always given access to hygiene and protective equipment. Even before the pandemic began, mass incarceration was a public health problem, and COVID-19 has made the situation far worse.

Wildfires in Oregon and the rest of the West Coast have caused disruptions and despair, and evacuations of adults in state prison custody led to increased COVID-19 exposure and, according to some reports, squalid conditions for people being moved. As wildfires closed in in the summer of 2020, thousands of incarcerated people were transferred from already crowded and unsafe prisons to extremely overcrowded prisons. Since these emergency evacuations, COVID-19 cases and deaths have significantly increased in several of our state prisons. We are advocating for an independent third-party investigation into the inhumane conditions that many incarcerated people were placed under throughout these evacuations, which would allow ODOC an opportunity to be better prepared for any further prison evacuations in the future.

COVID-19 is already inside Oregon’s prisons, with more than 1,100 cases recorded among adults in custody and staff. If combined with another emergency such as the wildfires or the upcoming flu season, we could see COVID-19 cases skyrocket. We must have a third party investigate what went wrong during the evacuations so that changes are made to prevent these kinds of problems in future.

We will continue to advocate for safer conditions for those incarcerated in Oregon prisons, and we will continue to find ways that our supporters can join us in this work to protect the health of all Oregonians.

Oregon PSR and Oregon Justice Resource Center are continuing our discussion on mass incarceration and public health with regard to Oregon state prisons and adults in custody in Oregon. We are entering into our second year of working together to both better understand and better advocate for the health and well-being of adults in custody in Oregon state prisons.

Learn more about mass incarceration and public health at the resources below.

Oregon PSR and Oregon Justice Resource Center webinars:

September 29th, 2020 webinar

November 20th, 2020 webinar

January 26th, 2021 webinar

Additional resources:

On Life Support: Public Health in the Age of Mass Incarceration