Social Justice and COVID-19: A Rallying Cry for Medical Schools to Prioritize Criminal Justice Health
To the Editor:
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and further reinforced preexisting health disparities in the U.S. general population, the severity and acuity of this health crisis has been particularly alarming in the criminal justice system. COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted people housed in U.S. jails and prisons. With our national focus on correcting social injustice, now more than ever should criminal justice health be reflected in medical education curricula. There are 2.3 million people behind bars in the United States, with an overrepresentation of the most economically disadvantaged Americans and racial minorities. 1 As every physician takes an oath to “do no harm,” medical schools should prepare physicians to understand the health needs of all, including those of the incarcerated. Failure to take action will only widen disparities among this population, which unevenly consists of people of color with serious health care needs.
Promoting correctional health care is a key component of improving population health. The indelible link between correctional medicine and public health has been dramatically highlighted by the spread of SARS-CoV-2. This topic should not be relegated to optional learning. Rather, understanding how to care for all our patients in the context of criminal justice and systemic racism is essential learning. We must be prepared to care for every patient holistically. Teaching criminal justice health in medical schools is a widely neglected area and a missed opportunity for engagement with public health.
All academic institutions have a responsibility to address the crisis of mass incarceration in the United States. Because of the profound connection between criminal justice and public health, medical schools in particular should lead educational efforts—the development of sound public policy, the implementation of meaningful research, and the delivery of quality health care to the populations impacted by the criminal justice system. The necessity and urgency of this issue was thrown into stark relief by the COVID-19 pandemic and serves as a call to action to the medical education community.
Copyright © 2021 by the Association of American Medical Colleges
1. Sawyer W, Wagner P. Mass incarceration: The whole pie 2020. Prison Policy Initiative. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2020.html
. Published March 24, 2020. Accessed November 17, 2020.