Plenty has been written about the interplay between incarceration and health, with incarceration being increasingly recognized as a social determinant of health. Yet many people believe the impact is almost entirely at an individual level, addressed by providing health care in prisons and jails.
But the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) knew the story was much bigger and more complicated. So when it was asked by the Minnesota Legislature to report on how incarceration affects the health of those who are incarcerated, their families, and their communities, MDH teamed up with ReThink Health to see what a “systems thinking” approach would reveal.
More than 30 people attended two workshops in early 2016. They represented diverse perspectives on the criminal justice system, including public safety, economic development, education, health, human services, and the community. Participants were led through a discussion of the question: What are the issues, opportunities, and obstacles that impact incarcerated individuals and their families as they attempt to lead truly healthy lives? The goal was for participants to work together to develop a shared, high-level understanding of the systemic impacts of incarceration on health.
Together, the workshops resulted in a “map” of the system that explores the complexity of how health is created. As MDH suspected, participants identified and were able to trace deep and numerous connections between incarceration and health. They found that incarceration can have long lasting, detrimental effects on economic opportunity, educational achievement, family unity, and housing stability—the very conditions that shape the health of individuals, families, communities. Moreover, these conditions were found to be reinforcing; that is, once begun, the impact of incarceration on health spreads and deepens over time.
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