Skip to Main Content

When a man goes to prison, his children’s health may suffer.

That’s the conclusion of a study published Thursday in the British medical journal the Lancet. Researchers found that children of incarcerated men have higher rates of asthma, obesity, substance misuse, and behavioral and mental health problems. And the impact can linger for years, even into their adulthood.


Families of incarcerated adults also see higher rates of infant mortality, financial hardships that can restrict health care access, and increased mental and physical health risks, the study found.

“Mass incarceration isn’t just consequential for the health of folks who actually experience incarceration,” said Cornell University human ecology professor Christopher Wildeman, a lead author of the study. “It’s also important for the health for the women who have to manage households in the absence of these men and the children they leave behind.”

The study was part of a series published in the Lancet to highlight the ways the health care system exacerbates inequality in the US. The authors have called for a single-payer system.


Wildeman, whose paper was based on a reanalysis of previous research, said the US exacerbates health disparities through its criminal justice system. Prisoners experience higher rates of infectious disease and are more likely to have chronic medical conditions. Ever after release, formerly incarcerated individuals continue to have higher morbidity risks compared to other Americans, he said.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

“Incarceration might temporarily improve some physical health outcomes during imprisonment,” Wildeman wrote. “However, after release and over the life course more broadly, imprisonment seems to worsen both physical and mental health.”

Wildeman calls for more spending on affordable housing, addiction treatment, and mental health services. And he says “sweeping reforms” that shrink prison populations — such as creating more halfway houses or work release programs, or releasing aging prisoners — would go a long way to reducing health risks for both inmates and their families.