How Public Health Education Can Help End Mass Incarceration

February 13, 2020

The critically acclaimed PBS documentary series “College Behind Bars” shines a light on the Bard Prison Initiative, a college program for incarcerated persons where Bob Fullilove, Columbia Mailman School Associate Dean for Minority and Community Affairs, has taught public health for the last 10 years. In one scene at a BPI graduation, we see a teary-eyed Fulillove decked out in his academic regalia reacting to an emotional commencement speech.

In a well-timed complement to the PBS series, Fullilove and three BPI graduates who studied public health have published an article about the program in a special supplement to the American Journal of Public Health on mass incarceration and the carceral state. Holding up BPI as a model, they write, “one of the most important determinants of mass incarceration—education—is also the key to the development of significant solutions.”

Two of the article’s co-authors—Anibal Cortes and Richard Gamarra—completed master’s degrees in epidemiology at Columbia Mailman and are currently employed by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. A third author, Hancy Maxis, is currently completing a master’s degree in health administration at Columbia Mailman.

“ of the most important determinants of mass incarceration—education—is also the key to the development of significant solutions.”

Founded in 1999, the Bard Prison Initiative has awarded college degrees to more than 500 incarcerated persons in six correctional facilities in New York State. Its graduates have very low rates of recidivism—fewer than 4 percent have returned to prison. The BPI curriculum is rigorous to the standard of its sponsor institution, Bard College, a selective liberal arts college 100 miles north of New York City. Students take classes in subjects like Calculus, Chinese, art history, and literary theory. One of the most popular concentrations is public health with classes taught by Fullilove and other Columbia Mailman faculty, including Kim Hopper and Seth Prins.

Until the mid-1990s, college programs for incarcerated individuals were not unusual. In the 1940s, Malcolm X got an education while serving time at Norfolk Prison in Massachusetts. But in 1994, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act shut down hundreds of prison education programs by making Pell Grants off-limits to incarcerated persons. At the same time, incarceration has taken priority over educating the general public: since the 1990s, state-level expenditures on prisons and jails have increased three times as fast as spending on elementary and secondary education, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Nationally, individuals with relatively little education are more likely to be incarcerated; more than two-thirds of those in state prisons lack a high school diploma.

Funded through a mix of private and government support, BPI demonstrates that education is a far more effective and humane investment than mass incarceration. In particular, teaching public health, Fullilove and his co-authors argue, provides a framework for students to understand and address the problem of mass incarceration. Since leaving prison, the three BPI graduates have gone on to work in the public health system to reform the inequities produced by mass incarceration. “The success of [BPI] in creating college graduates committed to pursuing careers in public health cannot be underestimated,” they write.

Mass Incarceration: From Its Beginnings to a Vision for Its End

As of 2018, more than 2.2 million people were incarcerated in jails and prisons in the United States—far more than any other industrialized democracy. With origins in the aftermaths of slavery, labor exploitation, and racial discrimination, the carceral system continues to perpetuate racial inequalities through the criminalization of blackness and poverty and the mistreatment of Black people, observe Fullilove and his co-editors in a cover note. “Over the past 40 years, our society has deliberately divested from social and public goods designed to promote health and economic security while pumping resources into police, courts, and correctional systems that punish, impoverish, and dehumanize people and communities,” they write.

Writing in the same journal supplement, Seth Prins, assistant professor of epidemiology, considers the implications of the climate emergency on mass incarceration and health inequity; he writes that all three stem from “a system that rewards exploitation and privileges profit over well-being.” As a remedy fitting with the scale of the problem, he points to the growing call to avert planetary ecological disaster by rapidly decarbonizing the economy—an effort popularly known as the Green New Deal. This effort would create millions of jobs, invest in undoing damage to communities harmed by pollution, and fully fund social services such as universal healthcare, housing, and education, Prins argues. “These exact same measures also could be the route to decarceration and the elimination of health disparities in the United States.”

“About Redemption”

Directed by Lynn Novick and executive produced by Ken Burns, “College Behind Bars” presents an intimate portrait of BPI students and men’s and women’s prisons in upstate New York. Among them is Jule Hall who we see earn a bachelor’s degree in German, navigate the parole process, leave prison, and enter the workforce. Hall, who also studied public health with Bob Fullilove, now has a job at the Ford Foundation where he develops strategy and analyzing data for grants to advance, gender, racial and ethnic justice.

Commencement ceremonies are always an emotional experience—especially for everyone involved with BPI, says Fullilove, a professor of sociomedical sciences. “In a powerful way, this program gives students a way to put their past into perspective, while simultaneously imagining a new future—both for themselves and society at large,” he says. “It isn’t just about education. It’s about redemption.”