Trend Bending Policies for Advancing Racial Justice: Abolition and Liberation are Public Health’s Greatest Charges
image from Canva
The argument in favor of policing is built upon the idea that the profession exists to protect and serve communities of people—something the field of public health is also charged with. But, legally, there is no precedent for police to protect people—they have no obligation to protect individuals from one another. This is a profession born of slave-owners, who banded together in the 1700s to hunt and stop enslaved people attempting to run away from brutality.
Jails are an even older relic of centuries ago. The practice of jailing was brought over from England by colonizers, and has only grown in size and scope since. Historical records show most people jailed were impoverished, and not unlike today, wealthy individuals could pay off the sheriff. Incarceration is now often cited as a means of correcting behavior, at which it is remarkably ineffectual given the high rates of recidivism in the U.S. Systemic change away from policing, jails, and prisons could make our communities healthier, happier, and safer.
These facts suggest policing and incarceration are both ineffective practices when it comes to protecting communities, and are actively harmful towards those most targeted by policing and incarceration—namely nonwhite people, disabled people, and people living in impoverished neighborhoods. In contrast, public health strives to ensure equitable health and wellbeing for all. The focus of public health in specific communities has begun to overlap with the same communities most harmed by policing and incarceration. Even the American Public Health Association has publicly recognized police violence as a public health issue because of the disproportionate harm caused to communities of color.
Abolition is a tool public health ought to push more often. Abolition is the unlearning and stopping of harmful practices that endanger specific community members by their identity. Policing and mass incarceration are deeply related, and the abolition of one but not the other will mean continued harm for the most targeted communities.
Their relationship exists because policing leads to arrests, arrests lead to jail time and interactions with a justice system overly compatible with the explosiveness of modern policing, which frequently results in disproportionate prison sentence lengths. Abolition of these practices can result in more positive health outcomes because abolition is liberative, and liberation is restorative because it allows individuals to more fully belong and be civically engaged.
Abolition and liberation require the dismantling of systems and professions that predate our modern lives, which can be challenging to conceptualize. Simply, but radically, liberation asks us to remember people as life-deserving beings, and liberative health is founded on the idea that health is also freedom. Liberation and liberative health work against the policing and incarceration we see today, as they are institutions which pervasively contribute to sickness, disability, and death.
Incarcerated people face violence, injury, and death while being held captive, a lack of access to functional health care while imprisoned, and many other nuanced ways their mental, emotional, and physical health is diminished through incarceration and policing. These facts support the call for public health to champion modern prison and police abolition. The resulting liberation is paramount to increasing health outcomes in historically harmed communities. Data support this: suicide rates in jails are many times that of the general population rate, the rise in state prison deaths over the last two decades has dramatically outpaced the growth of state prison populations, and most people leaving prison have at least one chronic health condition. If we start our journey towards liberation by taking up the abolitionist cause of a future without policing and jails, we can improve the well-being of our communities.
Public health has a clear call to deeply engage with these impacted communities to enhance health outcomes. As public health practitioners, centering basic human rights and empathy in our collective work towards a healthier nation, liberation ought to be our ultimate goal. That is achieved through abolition, by challenging why we are insistent on punishment and reimagining what justice and healing might look like. Abolition and liberation can change our future for the better, and people are already leading the way towards this goal.
Written by: Nellie Kassebaum, MPHc. Nellie is a second year MPH Health Communications student at the Colorado School of Public Health. She is completing an internship with Community Commons.