ANN ARBOR, Mich.---More people live behind bars in the United States than in any other country, but the American prison system punishes more than just its inmates---it also takes a toll on the health of friends and loved ones left behind.
In the first known study of its kind, University of Michigan researchers found that people with a family member or friend in prison or jail suffer worse physical and mental health and more stress and depressive symptoms than those without a loved one behind bars. Moreover, these symptoms worsen the closer the relationship to the person incarcerated.
The study results could help explain health disparities between minorities and whites, says Daniel Kruger, research professor at the U-M School of Public Health and lead researcher on the study.
African Americans are more likely to know someone in prison and to feel closer to the person incarcerated than whites do, Kruger says.
"It's like a double whammy," he said.
Forty-nine percent of African Americans in the study report having a friend or relative in prison during the past five years, compared to just 20 percent of whites.
According to the study, those who knew someone in prison had 40 percent more days where poor physical health interfered with their usual activities, including work, and 54 percent more days where poor mental or emotional health interfered with these activities.
Others have examined the health effects of incarceration on inmates and a few studies have investigated the health of children whose mothers are in prison, but those studies focused on people already in the system, says Kruger.
"We actually took a representative sample of people in the community and asked them whether they had a friend or relative incarcerated in the last five years," Kruger said. "We also included a powerful array of known health predictors as control variables."
For instance, Kruger and colleagues
|Contact: Laura Bailey|
University of Michigan