Published January 26, 2022
The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Roughly 2.3 million people are incarcerated across the nation, and another 4.5 million are actively under community supervision when they are released from a criminal justice setting.
To ease the transition back into society for previously incarcerated individuals in Western New York, UB public health faculty and students are working with Peaceprints, a local nonprofit organization, to make their re-entry into the community as successful as possible.
According to Peaceprints CEO and UB alumna Cindi McEachon, clients leave prison battling more than just societal pressures. “There’s a ton of research to show that there is an increased or an elevated rate of chronic disease, substance abuse, mental illness, of health-related concerns when an individual is incarcerated,” McEachon says.
She explains that these health concerns are largely fueled by the prison environment or because a person has aged while incarcerated, providing additional challenges as they navigate post-incarceration life. Challenges for these people, she notes, can include not having access to health records, finding care providers and insurance coverage, and safely continuing medications without supervised dosing.
Ultimately, these challenges and the number of cases overwhelm health care systems, McEachon says. In simple terms, mass incarceration in the U.S. is a public health problem, she says.
This ideology of incarceration as a public health concern isn’t foreign to Jessica S. Kruger, clinical assistant professor in the UB Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, who teaches an undergraduate public health course exploring the social determinants of health in relation to mass incarceration. Kruger and her students work in partnership with Peaceprints to change the narrative by increasing access to services for these individuals in Western New York.
Kruger and her MPH students work at Bissonette House, a 120-day transitional residence program. The public health students, in collaboration with students from the School of Social Work and medical students involved in the Lighthouse Free Medical Clinic, work interprofessionally with the male residents of the house to help them start their post-incarceration life with access to resources and the ability to take ownership of their health through routine screenings and assessments.
“We do have to use our privilege to speak for others who are not heard as much … and to spread awareness about what is happening as people are being released [from prison] and even the disparities, which are occurring in and out of the criminal justice system,” Kruger says. With the help of UB faculty and students, residents leave Bissonette House without becoming a public health statistic, she adds.
When individuals are released from prison, their personal health, past traumas and the challenges of securing employment, obtaining permanent housing and becoming active members of society are often setting them up for failure. Kruger and her students aim to alleviate the burden and make each resident’s transition to the community a peaceful, public health outcome.