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Prison and health care crisis limits opportunities for people of color

Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell

Legal scholars, health care advocates and public officials recently depicted a health and prison crisis that is devastating communities of color.

The three-day Freedom’s Voice Conference, held in April and sponsored by the Morehouse School of Medicine’s Community Voices program, offered recommendations on how to address many of the problems. But the panelists also sent a clear message: There must be decisive action to reverse public policies sending record numbers of people to prison, leaving those outside prison walls without access to health care and restricting people of color to segregated communities.

Former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher recalled Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement that “of all of the forms of inequalities known to man, injustice in health is the most shocking and inhumane injustice.”

As bad as inequalities were in Dr. King’s time, the conference reinforced that people of color today often face worse circumstances.

Today, “we know that inequality in criminal justice, inequality in jobs, inequality in working conditions all lead to injustice in health,” Satcher said. “We know that.”

With public policy debates intensifying due to this year’s presidential election, many at the conference cited policies helping communities of color that should be expanded and criticized ones having a negative impact.

Nkechi Taifa, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Policy Center, praised the enactment of the Second Chance Act, which authorizes the development of strategic plans for aiding juvenile and adult inmates reentering their communities and helping them find jobs. Statistics show that 700,000 inmates are released from prison each year. About two-thirds return within three years.

The Second Chance Act would provide former convicts with better access to family unification, job training, education, housing, substance abuse and mental health services, Taifa said. Only authorizing legislation has been signed into law, however, and Taifa called on supporters to fight for full funding of the program.

She also attacked the consequences of the Adoption and Safe Families Act. While encouraging adoptions, it requires the termination of parental rights when a child has been in foster care for 15 of the previous 22 months, a particularly hard requirement on incarcerated parents seeking to connect with their children.

“Social and criminal justice policies and laws generated by the war on drugs still negatively and punitively impact those returning to society,” Taifa said.

The conference also featured discussion on the rising number of uninsured Americans, laws incarcerating people for minor crimes or drug violations, the high incidence of infant mortality among African American women and the challenges men of color face.

Judge Greg Mathis noted that African American men account for only 6 percent of the U.S. population, but represent nearly 60 percent of those in prison.

“What is the effect of that?” he asked. “One, we have poverty, disproportionate poverty, single-family homes. And then, of course, and this might be somewhat controversial, but it’s true, we have a higher rate of HIV and AIDS because in the prisons men engage — many of them, very many of them — in homosexual activity.”

Dr. John A. Powell of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University lamented the significant worsening of inequities over the last 20 years after a period of improvement.

“The United States has greater inequality than it’s had since the 1920s,” said Powell, a nationally recognized authority in civil rights and issues related to race, poverty and the law. “Inequality is expanding at a rapid rate, and the inequality that we experience today actually started in the 1980s. From 1965 to 1980, inequality in the United States actually became compressed … There were all these programs like the War on Poverty. Something was happening in the country that was moving people closer together, and that’s actually a very positive thing in terms of health outcome.”

But “now, if you look at our life expectancy compared to the rest of the world, in 1980, we were number 14. In 2007, we’re number 29,” he added. “So in the same period that we see rapid inequality growing in the United States, we see a rapid decline in terms of our health status as a country.”

Powell cited data that found an African American woman with a college degree is more likely to have a child with a low birth weight or that dies in infancy than a white woman without a high school diploma.

Meanwhile, Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO and founder of the advocacy organization PolicyLink, emphasized how much “place matters” in our society, noting the connection between many social problems for people of color and unhealthy surroundings.

“We have an epidemic of childhood obesity in this country, and we are blaming mothers and fathers and the children themselves,” Blackwell said. “Behavioral choices are a huge part of what impacts health. But it’s not as if people are just going out and choosing the wrong things. It’s not that children are choosing not to be involved with Little League. It’s not that they are choosing not to play on the streets, as many of you probably had the occasion to do when you were growing up. They’re not choosing not to go to parks. They’re not choosing to eat unhealthy diets in a vacuum.”

The problem, she said, is that we have a society that has not paid attention to making sure that the healthy choices are the easy choices.

As the agenda is set during the presidential campaign, we must ensure that the public policies being debated are the right ones for communities of color.

Dr. Henrie M. Treadwell is director of Community Voices: Healthcare for the Underserved, an initiative managed by the National Center for Primary Care at Morehouse School of Medicine.

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