America's mass incarceration problem is making kids sick

Researchers found a strong link between parents' incarceration and depression, asthma, anxiety and other issues

Published August 22, 2014 5:22PM (EDT)

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with more than 2 million people behind bars. Most happen to be parents to children under the age of 18, and nearly 70 percent of these parents are nonviolent offenders. According to current estimates, between 1.7 and 2.6 million children in this country have a parent in prison or jail. And their parents aren't the only ones being punished, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California-Irvine on health and behavioral outcomes among children with incarcerated parents.

Using data from the National Survey of Children's Health, researchers compared children with similar backgrounds and social circumstances and found that having a parent behind bars was related to higher rates of depression, anxiety, asthma, depression and other health and behavioral issues. The study -- set to be published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior -- controlled for factors like parents' health, educational attainment, employment status, race and relationship status, and found that, to put it rather mildly, "parental incarceration can be really detrimental to children."

“We know that poor people and racial minorities are incarcerated at higher rates than the rest of the population, and incarceration further hinders the health and development of children who are already experiencing significant challenges,” study author and assistant professor of sociology at U.C. Irvine Kristin Turney said in a press release. “Our results suggest that children’s health disadvantages are an overlooked and unintended consequence of mass incarceration. Incarceration, given its unequal distribution across the population, may have implications for racial and social class inequalities in children’s health.”

Turney isn't the first expert to identify the ways that mass incarceration hurts families and children. To state the obvious, putting a parent in prison physically removes them from their children, breaking physical and emotional bonds. The problem is further compounded by barriers like visitation fees, costly phone calls and the travel burden presented by out of state incarceration. The consequences are emotional and physical.

When Tennessee passed a law to criminalize pregnant people who use narcotics, reproductive health advocates, public health officials and addiction specialists denounced the policy for treating a health issue as a criminal matter and for separating families. And as Dr. Hendree Jones, a professor with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, told Salon after the first woman in the state was arrested under the new law, separating new moms from their babies hurts them both:

Certainly from the baby’s standpoint, and specifically from the standpoint of neonatal abstinence syndrome, we know this from data from Johns Hopkins, that when Mom and baby room together, the rates of just the need to treat neonatal abstinence syndrome at all — so how many babies actually need medication — we can cut in half.

At Hopkins we went from a 50 percent [neonatal abstinence syndrome] rate to a 25 percent [neonatal abstinence syndrome] rate, just by having Mom and baby room together. So there’s a tremendous amount that happens in the first couple of weeks and months in being close together. Obviously if Mom is separated the baby won’t have the benefit of breast milk and we know that that’s the most optimal nutrition for the baby in terms of acquiring Mom’s immunity to things as well as enhancing brain development and overall physical growth and reducing opportunities for illness. And then for the mom, we also know that moms are more likely to relapse if they’ve lost their children to Child Protective Services or separated in some way, so that can be really devastating too.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Incarceration Mass Incarceration Prisoners' Rights War On Drugs