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Incarceration shortens life expectancy

by Emily Widra, June 26, 2017

New research expands the notions of collateral consequences beyond post-release barriers and discrimination. Two studies show that incarceration shortens life expectancy, at both the national and individual levels.

Nationally, there are so many people living behind bars that the average life expectancy for the total U.S. population has taken a hit. In 2014, the life expectancy at birth in the U.S. was 78.8 years, while most comparable nations (Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Italy, Japan, France, Germany, Canada, Australia, Austria) had life expectancies above 81 years.

A 2016 study by Professor Christopher Wildeman offers us an explanation for the U.S. falling behind on measures of population health, like life expectancy: mass incarceration. In comparison to other developed democracies, Wildeman finds that from 1981 to 2007, the U.S. life expectancy would have increased by more than five years – from 74.1 to 79.4 years – if not for mass incarceration. Without so many people behind bars, he argues, the life expectancy at birth would have increased 51% more than it actually did from 1981 to 2007. The sheer magnitude of how many people are locked up shortens our entire nation’s life expectancy.

This isn’t just problematic from a population health standpoint; the reduced life expectancy resulting from incarceration impacts individuals, families, and communities on a personal level. In her 2013 analysis of New York state parole data, Professor Evelyn Patterson identified a linear relationship between incarceration and life expectancy: for each year lived behind bars, a person can expect to lose two years off their life expectancy. In the parole cohort she studied, five years in prison increased the odds of death by 78% and reduced the expected life span at age 30 by 10 years. Time served has a direct correlation to years of life lost.

Although both studies suggest that incarceration affects life expectancy, neither study identifies the pathways by which this happens. Incarceration itself may be harmful enough to explain these effects, or it may be one of many adverse experiences putting vulnerable populations at risk. Either way, it’s important to address the appalling conditions of incarceration and the lack of opportunities and services for at-risk communities. Most importantly, we need to put less people behind bars. As Professor Patterson points out, unlike many collateral consequences of incarceration, “death cannot be reversed”.

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