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July 13, 2021
by Patricia Tomasi

Does Going To Jail Affect The Wellbeing Of Family Members?

July 13, 2021 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

A new study published in JAMA looked at exposure to family member incarceration and adult wellbeing in the United States.

“Our study investigated how the incarceration of a family member is associated with wellbeing and life expectancy,” study author Dr. Ram Sundaresh told us. “We suspected that having a family member incarcerated would be associated with lower wellbeing and life expectancy.” 

According to the Sentencing Project, the U.S. is the world leader in incarceration. There are two million people in jails in the U.S. which translates to a 500 per cent increase in the past four decades. The prevailing theory as to why this is the case is not because crime have gone up but rather, that changes in sentencing law and policy have pushed the numbers up.

“The data are clear. As a nation, we have the largest incarcerated population in the world,” Dr. Sundaresh told us. “This has had profound impacts on public health and the social fabric of our country, and disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities. While there is good data on the social and economic impacts of having a family member incarcerated, prior work has not studied overall wellbeing or life expectancy at the national level.” 

The second nation to have the highest incarceration rate outside the U.S. is El Salvador with a rate of 572 individuals per 100,000 incarcerated. The U.S. rate is 639 per 100,000. Third on the list is Rwanda with 511 per 100,000 incarcerated and fourth is Brazil at 357 per 100,000. Many believe the War on Drugs in the 1980s began sending more and more people in the U.S. to prison, citing the number for people sent to jail for drug offences rose from 40 thousand in 1980 to over 430,000 by 2019.

“We used data from the Family History of Incarceration Survey, which captures a nationally representative cross-section of family member incarceration experiences,” Dr. Sundaresh told us. “We analyzed the data to examine associations between family member incarceration and wellbeing. Some of the strengths of our approach were to use a strongly validated tool to measure wellbeing, and also to calculate life expectancy projections.” 

The research team found that having any family member incarcerated was associated with lower wellbeing in every domain– physical health, mental health, social and financial wellbeing, and spiritual wellbeing. Researchers had estimated that not only was this associated with a 2.6 year lower projected life expectancy, but that it was disproportionally lower among Black individuals.

“Although we were not surprised that having a family member incarcerated was associated with lower wellbeing, we were surprised at how stark this was,” Dr. Sundaresh told us. “A 2.6 year reduction in life expectancy is comparable to being personally incarcerated. Having three or more immediate family members incarcerated is associated with an even lower projected life expectancy comparable to having a heart attack. It was sobering to see this in light of prior work which has shown that over 60% of Americans have ever had a family member incarcerated, and an even higher prevalence among Black Americans.”  

Incarceration has broad repercussions for individuals, families, and communities, explained Dr. Sundaresh.

“Our work adds to the data showing that incarceration, and it’s impact on family members, is an important driver of health disparities in our nation,” Dr. Sundaresh told us. “Efforts to decarcerate our country could have wide-reaching implications for improving wellbeing, life expectancy, and racial health disparities by reducing the impact on non-incarcerated family members.” 

The researchers of the study believe mass incarceration is among this generation’s problems to solve, and the current study shows that for these families there is so much at stake. 

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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