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The Consequences of Incarceration for Mortality in the United States

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Previous research has suggested that incarceration has negative implications for individuals’ well-being, health, and mortality. Most of these studies, however, have not followed former prisoners over an extended period and into older adult ages, when the risk of health deterioration and mortality is the greatest. Contributing to this literature, this study is the first to employ the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to estimate the long-run association between individual incarceration and mortality over nearly 40 years. We also supplement those analyses with data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79). We then use these estimates to investigate the implications of the U.S. incarceration regime and the post-1980 incarceration boom for the U.S. health and mortality disadvantage relative to industrialized peer countries (the United Kingdom).

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  1. In the remainder of the text, we use the terms “effect” or “impact” of condition X on mortality as shorthand to mean the estimated regression coefficient of condition X on mortality. We do this to avoid terminological cluttering, not to equivocate. We invoke causal language only when we think it is legitimate to do so.

  2. We explored whether the association between incarceration and mortality changes after the release of inmates (not shown). Our results were consistent with the literature and previous research (i.e., the risk of mortality is highest early after release and decreases over time). However, because our sample is too small to sustain robust inferences, we did not estimate the magnitude of the differences between long- and short-term effects. This issue should be explored in future research.

  3. The distribution of the age of death is shown in Fig. S1 of the online appendix.

  4. The distribution of the age of first imprisonment is shown in Fig. S1 of the online appendix.

  5. The variability of the slope in humans is restricted to a somewhat narrow range (.05–.14) (Kirkwood 2015). We expect our estimates to be within that range. We opt for not letting the Gompertz slope be a function of covariates (some of them identical to those that modify the constant) because this leads to intractable identification problems, even in very large samples.

  6. There are many and very strong reasons to use the United Kingdom and not France or Russia as a benchmark. First, in key studies of the U.S. adult health and mortality disadvantage, the United Kingdom is used as the preferred benchmark (Banks et al. 2006) because of similarity of culture and language and contrasts of medical health care system. Ideally, we would have liked to produce a full comparison with all countries included in the National Research Council report, but that is left for future work. In terms of the criminal justice system, comparisons between the United States and the United Kingdom are not rare, either. Garland (2002), for instance, claimed that there are strong similarities in the recent criminal policies and practices, and this alone makes the comparison interesting.

  7. Had the range of values been broader, we would have proceeded differently via Bayesian computations, imposing a prior distribution on estimates. This exercise is left for future research.


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The University of Wisconsin–Madison researchers are supported by core grants to the Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin (R24 HD047873), and to the Center for Demography of Health and Aging, University of Wisconsin (P30 AG017266), as well as a small grant for research using PSID data through the National Institute on Aging (P01AG029409).

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Correspondence to Sebastian Daza.

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Daza, S., Palloni, A. & Jones, J. The Consequences of Incarceration for Mortality in the United States. Demography 57, 577–598 (2020).

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