New research has found that people who grew up in a household where a member was incarcerated have an 18 percent greater risk of experiencing poor health as adults.
The study, from researchers at Brown University, suggests that the nation’s high rate of imprisonment could be contributing to enduring physical and mental health difficulties in these families.
“These people were children when this happened, and it was a significant disruptive event,” said Annie Gjelsvik, an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health and lead author of the study published in the Journal of Healthcare for the Poor and Underserved. “That disruptive event has long-term adverse consequences.”
The study is based on data gathered from more than 81,000 adults who responded to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, a standardized national assessment of health.
In 2009 and 2010, 12 states and the District of Columbia included questions about childhood adversity, including this question: “Did you live with anyone who served time or was sentenced to serve time in a prison, jail, or other correctional facility?”
That question was asked in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Washington in 2009, and Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Washington, Washington D.C., and Wisconsin in 2010.
The researchers analyzed the survey results to see if there were health quality differences between those who answered yes or no. In the survey, respondents were asked how many days out of the last month they experienced bad mental or physical health. If the total exceeded 14 days, their overall health quality was considered poor, the researchers explained.
Of the 81,910 respondents, 3,717, or 4.5 percent, said they grew up in a household where an adult family member was incarcerated. That rose to 6.5 percent when the total sample was statistically weighted to accurately represent the adult population of each state, according to the researchers.
The percent of people reporting an incarceration in the family varied by age (younger people were more likely than older people), by race (blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites), and by other demographic factors, the researchers noted.
Because a number of problems can lead to poor health quality, the researchers employed statistical analysis techniques to account for potential influences, including age and education, which was tightly correlated with income.
The total number of other adverse childhood experiences, such as emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, as well as exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, a mentally ill family member, and parental separation or divorce, also were considered.
Even then, the researchers found an 18 percent greater risk of poor adult health quality among those exposed to an incarceration in their family during childhood.
Last May, in a separate study based on the same data, Gjelsvik’s team found that people with family incarcerations in their youth were more likely as adults to engage in smoking and heavy drinking, after controlling for demographics and additional adverse childhood events.
Gjelsvik acknowledged that the studies leave questions because they did not measure which family member was sent to prison, when, for what reason, or for how long.
“But the overall findings argue against policies such as mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders,” Gjelsvik said.
“Incarceration can be necessary, but greater use of alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as drug courts, could spare some innocent children from a lifetime of reduced health,” she said.
“I’m not saying don’t incarcerate people,” she said. “But we need to allow our system to use judgment and to use innovative and evidence-based programs.”
Source: Brown University