Seed Grants

The Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health (MSPH) has a strong commitment to adding the voice of public health leaders and practitioners to the dialogue and growing movement to address our nation’s crisis around mass incarceration and the need for new approaches to promoting health, justice, and safety in our families, communities, and systems.

In June of 2014, MSPH hosted the national conference, “A Public Health Approach to Incarceration: Opportunities for Action,” which brought together Deans, Program Heads, and Scholars representing over 50 schools and programs of public health from across the country. Following the conference, the Incarceration and Public Health Action Network (IPHAN) was established to build the network of academics thinking about and working on the intersection of these issues, and to integrate the understanding of incarceration and public health, with the ultimate goal of amplifying our educational programs, research initiatives, and community collaborations related to incarceration and public health.

Feedback from conference participants indicated that there is interest in obtaining support to develop public health curriculum that would draw on public health concepts including how incarceration and involvement in the criminal justice system is a social determinant of population health and what are the public health interventions that can be used to prevent individuals and families from being at risk of criminal justice involvement and incarceration. This RFP will provide seed grants for development or refinement of curricula which focuses on putting a public health lens on the issues of incarceration and criminal justice.  

Background and Rationale 

The rapid rise in incarceration from the 1970s through the early 2000s has had broad effects, impacting those imprisoned and their families and communities. The United States holds approximately 5% of the world’s population, but over 25% of the world’s prisoners. The reach of the criminal justice system is expansive and has been characterized as “mass incarceration” or “mass imprisonment.” In many cities, it has been followed by increases in contact between citizens and law enforcement, financial setbacks for people awaiting trial, a decline in the quality of correctional health care, and a reduction in services for formerly incarcerated individuals.

The challenges of mass incarceration, the individual and collective effects, and the  concentration within racial and ethnic minority communities, has drawn an intense examination of the “carceral continuum” across multiple domains of public service. The examination has brought to light the damaging long and short-term effects of our criminal justice system, especially its involvement in mass incarceration. The risks to public safety as well as the economic, social and health implications for families and communities are tied to incarceration.  The new focus on mass incarceration has also renewed interest in the possibilities for families, schools and neighborhood institutions to divert individuals from criminal offenses, recidivism, and the risks of jail and prison. The fiscal burdens of incarceration have also animated new efforts to develop and strengthen community-based sanctions as alternatives to custodial ones.

Health and substance use risks associated with incarceration include the following:

  • Singularly, the incarceration rate in the United States is associated with decreased life expectancy and increased disparities in overall population health.

  • Inmates have AIDS diagnoses at five times the rate of the general population, and hepatitis C at nine to ten times the rate of the general population.

  • The rate of serious mental illness is two to six times higher among incarcerated populations than it is in the general population. Serious mental illness has been documented in 14.5% of men and 31% of women in jail settings. Almost 90% of these individuals do not receive care.

  • Over 70% of people in jails with serious mental illness also have a co-occurring substance-use disorder.

As a science of prevention and promotion, public health is uniquely positioned to mitigate these risks and promote individual and environmental factors that protect against criminal justice involvement and incarceration. As a multidisciplinary field that addresses both biological and social determinants of health throughout the life course, public health is well-suited to integrate the complex system of factors that have the potential both to divert youth and adults from offending behavior, to improve the health and wellbeing of people who come into contact with the criminal justice system, and reduce the collateral consequences of incarceration and the risk of recidivism upon release. 

The IPHAN Curriculum Seed Grant program will enable faculty, either individually or collaboratively, to design or refine courses focused on the intersection of incarceration and public health, and to integrate the understanding of these issues, with the ultimate goal of amplifying our educational programs, research initiatives, and community collaborations related to incarceration and public health. These seed grants would provide $5,000 for a new course or $2,500 to refine an existing course. A maximum of $15,000 will be awarded through this RFP.