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Not Just the Inmates, Mass Incarceration Also Hurts the People Outside Prisons, Finds Lancet Study

Image used for representational purpose.

Image used for representational purpose.

The study found that jail incarceration can be harmful not only to the health of individuals who are incarcerated, but also to public health more broadly.

Can mass-scale prison systems hurt more than just the people in it? A new study finds that it affects a lot more than the people directly part of a prison system.

Mass incarceration has collateral consequences for community health, which are reflected in county-level health indicators, including county mortality rates. County jail incarceration rates are associated with all-cause mortality rates in the USA. The study conducted by Columbia University reseachers and published in The Lancet assessed the causes of death that drive the relationship between county-level jail incarceration and mortality.

It found that a 1 per 1000 within-county increase in jail incarceration rate was associated with a 6·5% increase in mortality from infectious diseases, a 4·9% increase in mortality from chronic lower respiratory disease, a 2·6% increase in mortality induced from substance use, a 2·5% increase in suicide mortality, and smaller increases in mortality from heart disease were reported.

The study interpreted it as “Jail incarceration can be harmful not only to the health of individuals who are incarcerated, but also to public health more broadly. Our findings suggest important points of intervention, including disinvestment from carceral systems and investment in social and public health services, such as community-based treatment of substance-use disorders.”

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The result of the study found that 1094 counties (36% of all US counties) had at least 2 years of complete data for all nine causes of death, representing 33 882 county-years over the 31-year study period. Substance-induced mortality had the highest amount of data suppression, which resulted in our sample being skewed towards larger, non-rural counties. Aside from size and urbanicity, the included counties had higher average crime rates than did excluded counties. Excluded and included counties were similar with respect to other sociodemographic variables and the jail incarceration rate.

While the study was limited to the US, the basic premise, the density of population has a universal appeal, India too has large-sized prison systems, and Tihar Jail, is infamous for its horrors. About 80 hectares in size, Tihar is India’s biggest prison complex. It has capacity for about 6,000 inmates, although the actual number of prisoners it houses is often nearly twice that.