UAMS Program Works To Address Public Health Inequities in Justice System
Community is at the heart of the Southern Public Health and Criminal Justice Research Center (S-PAC).
A program of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health’s Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, the center provides community-focused solutions to Arkansas’ overuse of mass incarceration as a primary public safety option. It develops evidence-based alternatives to incarceration for some of the state’s most disadvantaged population groups.
Established by Nick Zaller, Ph.D., professor in the College of Public Health, in 2020, the center uses communityinspired, action-oriented research and trainings to eradicate racial, economic and public health inequities related to the criminal justice system. This includes addressing the health status, job opportunities and access to social resources for formerly incarcerated individuals and community members.
“Mass incarceration is a statewide issue,” Zaller said. “The incarceration rates in rural Arkansas are outpacing rates in urban communities. Properly addressing the situation requires local solutions based on community resources.
“Our work not only highlights stark disparities within the correctional system, but we also seek to address some of the most critical challenges facing African American communities in our state, including violence, behavioral health disorders, and health and economic inequities.”
The center has a variety of community-based research programs that aim to eliminate or minimize inequities.
The programs give UAMS faculty and staff the chance to build a rapport with the communities they serve. Some of the center’s ongoing programs are:
• Providing HIV education and linkage to HIV prevention services
• Addressing the racial wealth gap to promote health
• Addressing violent assault • Exploring barriers and facilitators to accessing medications to treat opioid use disorder, particularly in Arkansas’ rural areas
• Implementing substance use disorder treatment within correctional settings
• Exploring alternatives to incarceration through mental health crisis services
Extensive research suggests that overzealous incarceration adds to the deterioration of both individuals and communities. Additionally, too often, individuals placed in the criminal justice system struggle with undiagnosed mental health issues and scarce opportunities to adjust and thrive upon returning to society. Zaller and his team understand that if a person is mentally and physically healthy, has steady employment and access to social resources, they’re more likely to be a productive member of society.
Due to the way the community has embraced the center and its goals, Zaller expects SPAC to steadily expand, build partnerships and increase its impact in Arkansas. “We’re always excited to partner with new organizations,” he said.
“We’re always looking for ways to work with individuals and communities on the front lines of addressing Arkansas’ social inequities. We’re excited to work with those who share our passion for a more just and equitable society.
“Our main goal is to develop and implement community informed, evidence-based interventions and practices that support and promote health and well-being.”