Study Shows Prison Is as Devastating as Divorce or Death

We know the psychological harms caused by doing time in prison. But those negatives also filter down to the children of people behind bars. A recent study shows that the incarceration of a parent may affect the health of children as much as or more than divorce or even the death of a parent.

Kristin Turney, Ph.D., a researcher from the University of California, Irvine, presented her findings at the 109th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in San Francisco. She argues that having a parent in prison is independently associated with negative health outcomes for children.

There appears to be a link between having a parent in prison and issues like learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavioral problems, and social or developmental delays in children. Researchers will need to study the issue further to prove that the incarceration of a parent is causing these disorders.

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“This study finds that, for at least some health conditions, there's a relationship between parental incarceration and children's health. But incarceration isn't equally related to all of children's health conditions,” said Turney.

Turney looked at several factors of overall health, including any learning disabilities, anxiety and depression, obesity, activity limitations, and chronic school absences.

“Incarcerated individuals are connected to families. They're romantic partners. They're fathers. And their incarceration can have spillover effects for those connected to them.” — Kristin Turney, Ph.D.

Obesity affected the largest number of children in the study, nearly 16 percent. Asthma, learning disabilities, and ADHD were also common. Children with a parent in prison were also more likely to have ADHD than children affected by divorce or the death of a parent.

Stress was especially common in children with parents behind bars. Incarceration appeared to most strongly affect “those that have strong stress-related pathways, suggesting that the stress of incarceration [spreads] to children of the incarcerated,” Turney said.

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No Man Is an Island

“It's common to think about incarcerated individuals as being social isolates. But incarcerated individuals are connected to families. They're romantic partners. They're fathers. And their incarceration can have spillover effects for those connected to them,” Turney said.

Turney used data from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health, which included more than 95,000 children younger than 17 in the U.S.

“There has been a growing body of literature that studies how parental incarceration affects the well being of children. But this is the first study that broadly considers a wide array of physical and mental health outcomes in children,” Turney said.

This study is just the first step. Because people who go to prison tend to be from socially disadvantaged groups, it could be that hardships like poverty and lack of access to education — not parental incarceration, specifically —  are causing the children's health problems.

“First, and importantly, we need to know if parental incarceration has a causal effect on children's health,” Turney said.

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Since the 1970s, incarceration rates in the U.S. have skyrocketed. Today, there are more than two million adults behind bars in the U.S., the study reports. 

Combating the Risk

“Children of incarcerated parents face many risks,” Turney said. “But, given that incarceration is unequally distributed across the population and instead concentrated among minorities and those with low socioeconomic status, this means that some children are disproportionately exposed to parental incarceration.”

However, there are ways combat the increased risk of disease for children with incarcerated parents.

“Both physicians and psychologists should consider screening children for parental incarceration. Parental incarceration is a risk factor for poor health outcomes,” Turney said.

If researchers find proof that parental incarceration causes health problems in children, “this might suggest that the criminal justice system may be a point of intervention,” Turney said.

What these findings show for now is that regardless of why, the children of incarcerated parents are an especially at-risk group that could benefit from more support services like psychological counseling and social work.

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