Mass Incarceration Mix

Background: Mass incarceration is one of the most pressing social problems of our time, and has significant consequences for public health. People caught in the policy of mass incarceration are subject to entrenched racial disparities, poverty, under-education, bleak job and housing prospects, and health issues like HIV, hepatitis C, substance use, and mental illness.  While the United States now incarcerates a higher raw number (~2.3 million) of individuals than any other country in the world, and has an incarceration rate second only to Seychelles, most people under correctional supervision are actually living in the community on probation or parole (~4.9 million).

The policy of mass incarceration began after crime rates had dropped steadily after the Second World War. Policymakers had even recommended that President Nixon institute a freeze on any new prison construction for 10 years. Violent and non-violent crimes have continued to decline during the policy of mass incarceration  (and mass incarceration did not play a role in this decline).  Corrections spending (now at $68 billion per year) increased 300% over the past 20 years, outpacing education, transportation, and public assistance. Yet, recidivism rates have remained stable, with most people reoffending within three years of release from jail or prison.

Since most people sent to prison are eventually released, and most “corrections” actually happens in the community, it’s crucial that social epidemiologists and public health professionals recognize that the health of people in jails and prisons and on probation and parole is a component of public health, and is intertwined with many of the other “exposures” that social epidemiologists study, including race, poverty, gender, neighborhoods, education, and so on. The health, social, political, and economic impact of mass incarceration on families and communities is difficult to overstate.

– Text and slide deck by Seth Prins, PhD student in the Department of Epidemiology, Mailman School of public Health

The Mix:  The themes of incarceration, policing and drug laws have provided inspiration for performing artists across musical genres, for decades.   As a companion to the Mass Incarceration Info-Graphic, the Mass Incarceration Mix is three hours of music and spoken word that ranges from blues, to rock, punk and rap with segments of Angela Davis’ spoken word album “The Prison Industrial Complex” interspersed between the songs.  The mix kicks off with Public Enemy and includes, to name a few, N.W.A, Mos Def, System of a Down, Sam Cook, Johnny Cash, The Rolling Stones, Billie Holiday, Pearl Jam and Kanye West.


Due to the subject matter, many songs in the playlist have graphic lyrics. Inclusion of songs in the playlist does not represent an endorsement of views expressed by the artists.  The Mass Incarceration Mix reflects how these themes have been represented in popular music across the decades, in specific times and places, and across musical genres.


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