Eric Reinhart

Eric Reinhart



I’m a political anthropologist who studies jails and a psychoanalyst and physician who treats their long-term consequences for individuals and communities. Over the last decade, I’ve learned a few things about what incarceration does to public health and community safety. 1/

First, what does jailing not do? No good evidence supports claims that it prevents violence, but abundant evidence shows that pretrial detention in jails increases crime, violence, homelessness, disease, overdose, poverty, suicide, etc—that is, that it undercuts public safety. 2/

So what do jails do? In the US, they operates as irrational substitutes for adequate healthcare & social welfare systems. I addressed this — and the clear violence-preventing effects of increasing healthcare access — in the second half of this article. 4/

At Houston’s Harris County Jail, for example, 80% of people inside have a documented history of mental illness. Many have severe intellectual/developmental disability and/or TBI. Waiting list for transfer to a psychiatric hospital is over two years. 5/

Because of policymakers’ and local officials’ decisions to spend 65% of total county budget on ‘law enforcement’ to simply lock people up in a death trap rather than provide them the care that they need, at least 22 people have died in custody at Harris County Jail this year. 6/

Rikers, which has gotten far more media attention, owns a ghastly 17 deaths this year. What we must remember is that neither NYC’s Rikers nor Houston’s Harris County Jail are unique. They’re simply under the microscope. Thousands of similarly deadly, abusive jails are not. 7/

Many people are content to allow this to continue, ignoring the injustices in the unequal systems that lock up human beings in cages and blithely saying they deserve whatever harm comes to them. I won’t persuade many of them to care about true justice or others, but it may… 8/

…be useful if we can shift the national narrative to make even purely self-interested people realize that this system doesn’t just harm disproportionately policed and punished poor and Black/Brown/Indigenous communities; it boomerangs back as multiplying harm for everyone. 9/

Covid made this long-standing reality especially obvious, as Covid infections are much easier to track as they are multiplied inside jails/prisons due to their unsafe conditions and then inevitably spread throughout the entire national population. 10/

It was by using our Covid research that I tried to make this social-epidemiological dynamic—which applies to a wide range of other infectious diseases and chronic medical illness, psychiatric conditions, and economic harms—clear for popular audiences. 11/

Evidence makes unavoidable that—whether or not you care about justice, anti-racism, human rights, or protecting vulnerable people—ending US mass incarceration and investing in repairing the harm it has done for over 40 years is in everyone’s interest. 12/

But to end America’s globally unparalleled system of mass incarceration won’t be achieved by just carrying on as most academics, officials, and even activists have for decades: via emphases on reforms to intrinsically violent, destructive institutions. 13/

Findlay wrote in 1983, “As long as prison reformers attempt to work within the existing correctional system to reform it, reform will be dissipated as reformers inevitably are conditioned to accept retention of the basic correctional structure in exchange for minor revisions.”14/

Foucault: “the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning… does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison ‘reform’ is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme.” 15/

I hope this helps underline the fact that the demand for prison abolition is neither new nor uniquely American, although US residents have more reasons (now over 2 million) to demand that than any other nation. 16/

In the US over at least the last three decades, it’s been Black feminists like Angela Davis, Mariame Kaba, Dorothy Roberts, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and now Derecka Purnell who have returned this vision for justice to broad audiences after it had been submerged by crime politics. 17/

If you want to learn what abolitionist futures might look like, please read their work. Each has a new book that they have published over the last year or so. 18/

For skeptics (and the already-converted too), I highly recommend Thomas Ward Frampton’s recent essay in the Harvard Law Review (which follows on Dorothy Roberts’ remarkable work also in HLR on “abolition constitutionalism (19/

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