In Life and Death in Rikers Island, Homer Venters, the former chief medical officer for New York City’s jails, performs a social autopsy of the “inaccessible island colony of nine jails on Rikers Island” and reveals the “deadly and long-lasting health risks of jail” (p. ix).1 Three decades of mass incarceration in the United States coincide with a significant lack of support for community mental health treatment, deinstitutionalization, and the rise of punitive approaches to substance use and mental health challenges. The emphasis on punishment, rather than treatment, care, and support, has disproportionately impacted low-income communities of color. The withering social safety net combined with incarceration’s role in uprooting social networks has had devastating effects on individual and population-level health. Additionally, researchers have empirically demonstrated that criminal justice system involvement contributes to health disparities (Brinkley-Rubinstein, 2013). Traditionally, governmental interests regarding correctional health include meeting constitutional obligations; protecting public safety; strengthening public health; and practicing fiscal prudence. In administering correctional health services, Venters has “come to believe that accounting for the health risks of the jail system is one of our core responsibilities” (p. 1).
When the approach to governance is to avoid bad news, poorly designed systems like jails are bound to produce bad outcomes. —Homer Venters
Venters’ book is essential reading for researchers, policy-makers, practitioners and anyone with an interest in social equity, justice, and health or corrections administration. This deft analysis of the health risks of incarceration, with attention toward politics, policy, and power, necessitates a moral imperative to address the problems of healthcare within the con- text of mass incarceration.cynthia golembeski 2, MPH