Incarceration as a Fundamental Social Cause of Health Inequalities: Jails, Prisons and Vulnerability to COVID-19

Meghan A. Novisky, Kathryn M. Nowotny, Dylan B. Jackson, Alexander Testa, Michael G. Vaughn

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)


Although research has established the disproportionate health burdens among incarcerated persons, the literature has yet to identify a theoretical framework for outlining the harms of incarceration associated with pandemics. We advance the literature theoretically by arguing two points. First, we assert that incarceration is a potent structural driver of health inequalities that must be considered as a fundamental social cause of disease. To underscore this point, we review how incarceration meets each of the four fundamental social cause criteria originally proposed by Link and Phelan. Second, given that incarceration is a fundamental social cause of disease, both currently and formerly incarcerated populations are likely to face heightened vulnerabilities to pandemics, including COVID-19, further exacerbating health disparities among incarceration-exposed groups.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1630-1646
Number of pages17
JournalBritish Journal of Criminology
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 2021 Nov 1

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (ISTD). All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail:

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Social Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Law


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