According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average U.S. life expectancy fell in both 2021 and 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was generally blamed; however, a compendium of research published by the Kaiser Foundation’s KFF Health News on April 27, 2023, suggests another reason: mass incarceration.
With over two million Americans imprisoned – and nearly 9 million more cycling through local jails every year – the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Add to that the fact prison itself is evidently an unhealthy environment; while no research has proven a direct link between imprisonment and reduced life expectancy, researchers have been able to estimate that each year in prison results in exposure to additional health risks that result in a loss of about two years from an individual’s life expectancy, according to a 2018 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF), Mass Incarceration Threatens Health Equity in America.
Then there are knock-off effects for the families of prisoners, largely due to the poverty that results from having a wage-earner locked up. Though they are innocent of any crime, their average life expectancy is also shaved over 30 months on average because of their loved ones’ incarceration, according to Exposure to Family Member Incarceration and Adult Well-being in the United States, a 2021 study published in Journals of the American Medical Association.
None of this minimizes the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on prisoners nor the pathetic response mounted by U.S. prisons and jails. As PLN has reported, in 2020 – the year of the pandemic’s onset – there was a 50% increase in prisoner deaths nationally. Six states showed a 200% increase. Overall death rates from the disease in America’s prisons were twice as high as the national average, claiming at least 6,182 prisoner lives in 2020 alone, compared to just 4,240 prison deaths in 2019 from all causes. [See: PLN, June 2023, p.27.]
“Incarceration is a major public health crisis,” declared UCSF researcher David Stroup. “It is time we took seriously the health impacts of this system and invested in programs that can help people who are incarcerated live longer, healthier lives.”
Sources: KFF Health News, Prison Policy Initiative, Truthout, Vera Institute, Undark
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