How Mass Incarceration Literally Makes Children Sick

April 8th 2017

There has long been research suggesting that incarceration has negative health consequences for the incarcerated, but a new study from British medical journal The Lancet indicates that incarceration can negatively impact the health of entire families.

Children whose fathers are incarcerated are more likely to develop depression, anxiety, asthma, learning disabilities, and obesity, according to the study. There are also negative economic and health consequences for those forced to manage their household without an incarcerated partner.

“The emerging literature on the family and community effects of mass incarceration points to negative health impacts on the female partners and children of incarcerated men, and raises concerns that excessive incarceration could harm entire communities and thus might partly underlie health disparities both in the USA and between the USA and other developed countries,” according to the study’s summary.

The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, with more than 2.3 million people behind bars. Black people, particularly black men, are the most disproportionately incarcerated in the U.S.

The authors of the study suggest there should be more research “into interventions, policies, and practices that could mitigate the harms of incarceration and the post-incarceration period.”

Cornell University professor Christopher Wildeman, one of the lead authors of the study, also called for “more spending on affordable housing, addiction treatment, and mental health services” in an interview with STAT. In many states, those convicted of a felony can lose the right to public housing, voting, as well as federal and state grants.

The study, which reanalyzed previous research, unsurprisingly had some similar results as previous analyses.

A previous study that controlled for race, parental educational attainment, and parental health, found that children of incarcerated parents were “three times as likely to suffer from depression, at least twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety, and exhibited higher rates of asthma, obesity, language problems and even epilepsy or seizure disorders.” A 2012 study also found that incarceration was associated with increased antisocial behavior among the incarcerated's children.

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