Dean's Message - August 2017

University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences Dean Marjorie Aelion

Dean Marjorie Aelion

August 24, 2017

Criminal justice, in some cases, is a public health and a health equity issue. In an effort to delve more into this important topic, the School of Public Health and Health Sciences will be hosting its next event in the SPHHS dean’s symposia series, “Women Behind Bars: Public Health and Criminal Justice Reform.” This symposium continues the School’s mission to improve health and quality of life among all people, and in all communities.

Our keynote speaker, Andrea James, a lawyer and also a formerly incarcerated woman, worked with other women to found Families for Justice as Healing (FJAH). Using their voices to create a more accurate portrait of jailed women, FJAH can speak personally about the impact of women’s incarceration, not only to the individual but also to their children and communities. Pregnant women and women behind bars face unique challenges compared to men. In some states, laws allow pregnant women to be incarcerated if they test positive for certain drugs, as opposed to receiving drug treatment. In most states, women and girls who give birth in jail are shackled to beds, a policy James considers “inhumane.” While Massachusetts passed the 2014 Massachusetts Anti-Shackling law that is one of the most comprehensive in the U.S., many jails and prisons in Massachusetts are failing to comply James indicated.

We hope this conversation will illuminate the issues facing incarcerated women, and especially low income women and women of color, and offer ideas for change in the future. Incarceration reform is a major public health issue in need of attention by lawmakers, the criminal justice system, and the health care system. Please join us!