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New Study: Relatives of Prisoners Suffer Lower Life Expectancy

For years we’ve known each year a prisoner spends behind bars reduces their life expectancy by two years, but a new, first-of-its-kind study says that’s not confined to the incarcerated alone. Researchers found the loved ones of those incarcerated also suffer poorer health — meaning the harm and trauma experienced behind prison walls extends even to those who have never spent a day behind bars. 

A team of researchers from UCLA, Yale, Duke and Washington University in St. Louis found individuals with one family member incarcerated — immediate or extended — had a projected 2.6-year reduction in life expectancy compared to those with no family members incarcerated. The data does not discriminate between current or past incarceration.

As the number of incarcerated family members increased, those with three or more immediate family members had a projected 4.6-year reduction in life expectancy.

“It’s creating a serious ripple effect in the public health of people with incarcerated loved ones.”

Wanda Bertram, Prison Policy Initiative

This is the first study to measure the overall impact of incarceration on well-being with a national population-based study, according to the researchers and the Prison Policy Initiative.

“These findings suggest that efforts to decarcerate may improve population-level health and well-being by reducing racial disparities and detrimental outcomes associated with incarceration for nonincarcerated family members,” the study states.

More than half of the adult population in America has had a family member incarcerated, the study states, which is even more prevalent for Black individuals, who are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates compared to their white counterparts.

Compared to white respondents, Black respondents in the study had an estimated 0.5-year reduction of projected life expectancy on top of the previous reductions.

Four years ago, data showed incarceration shortened an individual’s life expectancy by two years for each year they’re imprisoned. And with the large prison population in the U.S., overall life expectancy for Americans has also been shortened by almost two years.

“Locking up the most medically vulnerable people in our society has created a public health crisis not just inside prison walls, but in the outside community and across the country: The health of individuals, families, and entire communities is clearly associated with incarceration,” a report on the study from the Prison Policy Initiative states.

Prisons are thought to be a public safety solution and keep people safe, Prison Policy Initiative spokesperson Wanda Bertram says, yet people are actively getting hurt.

“Imprisoning people all time, rather than looking at other responses to crimes — violent and nonviolent — is not necessarily making people safer,” Bertram tells The News Station.

Individuals with any family member who was incarcerated, compared to those who’ve never had a relative locked up, were more likely to be Black, live in lower-income households or have a history of substance abuse or incarceration themselves, according to the study.

“They’re already uniquely likely to be in poor health because those same characteristics also describe people who have been systemically left behind and shut out of our healthcare system,” Bertram says.

Incarceration of family members also leads to economic instability — placing people at greater risk of further involvement with the justice system — reduced social support and has a multi-generational impact, meaning the punishment of one individual then gets passed down to their family members.  

“Locking up the most medically vulnerable people in our society has created a public health crisis not just inside prison walls, but in the outside community and across the country.”

Prison Policy Initiative

Women with partners who are incarcerated are also more likely to experience depression, high blood pressure and diabetes, while children with parents in prison are at greater risk of substance use, obesity, worse mental health and other potential long-term risks. Grandparents with adult children — particularly those in care giving roles — may also experience greater psychological distress and depression as well.

America imprisons the largest number of people worldwide, and the adverse effects are spilling out into families and causing more harm every day.

“It’s not just hurting people who are locked up, who I know most people find very unsympathetic, it’s also hurting their families,” Bertram says. “It’s creating a serious ripple effect in the public health of people with incarcerated loved ones.”

Zach Wendling is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He studies political science, journalism and broadcasting. He's currently senior news editor for the campus newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan. He's focused on covering university governance and administrative affairs, among other issues, like COVID-19.

Zach Wendling is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He studies political science, journalism and broadcasting. He's currently senior news editor for the campus newspaper, The Daily Nebraskan. He's focused on covering university governance and administrative affairs, among other issues, like COVID-19.

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