In the first known study of its kind, researchers at the University of Michigan have found that people with a family member or friend in prison or jail suffer worse physical and mental health and more stress and depressive symptoms than those without a loved one behind bars.
In addition, these symptoms worsen the closer the relationship to the person incarcerated, the study found.
Lead author Daniel Kruger, research professor at the U-M School of Public Health, said the study results could help explain health disparities between minorities and whites.
Kruger said African Americans are more likely to know someone in prison and to feel closer to the person incarcerated than whites do.
Forty-nine percent of African Americans in the study report having a friend or relative in prison during the past five years, compared to just 20 percent of whites.
Researchers found that those who knew someone in prison had 40 percent more days where poor physical health interfered with their usual activities, including work, and 54 percent more days where poor mental or emotional health interfered with these activities.
"We actually took a representative sample of people in the community and asked them whether they had a friend or relative incarcerated in the last five years. We also included a powerful array of known health predictors as control variables," Kruger said.
The study consisted of 1,288 adults from Flint, Mich., an urban area with high unemployment and crime rates, and surrounding areas of Genesee County. In the study, 67 percent of respondents were white and 26 percent were African American.
"Our study demonstrates that incarceration is not only enormously expensive economically, it also has public health costs and these should be taken into consideration," Kruger said.