Huge Racial Disparities in Incarceration Rates Have Created a Public Health Crisis in Black America

A new study by researchers at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago finds that young adults whose parents have been incarcerated during their childhood are less likely to obtain quality healthcare and are more likely to participate in unhealthy behaviors. Over 5 million children in the United States have had a parent who has spent time in jail or prison and African Americans are far more likely to have been incarcerated than White Americans.

The study examined survey data on 13,000 people ages 24-32. Ten percent of this group had a parent who had been in jail or prison at some point during their childhood. Young Black adults had a much higher prevalence of parental incarceration. While Black participants represented less than 15 percent of the young adults surveyed, they accounted for roughly 34 percent of those with history of an incarcerated mother and 23 percent with history of an incarcerated father.

The study found that young adults who had parents who spent time in jail when they were children were more likely to avoid proper healthcare, to engage in risky sexual behavior, to smoke cigarettes, and to be involved with substance abuse.

Young adults who had a mother who had been in jail were twice as likely to use emergency rooms as their primary health care provider and were twice as likely to have had sex in exchange for money. Young adults whose fathers had been in jail were 2.5 times as likely to abuse intravenous drugs.

Nia Heard-Garris, a pediatrician, instructor at the School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago, and lead author of the study, notes that “with the climbing number of parents, especially mothers, who are incarcerated, our study calls attention to the invisible victims – their children. The systemic differences in the arrest, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of people of color impact the future health of their children.”

Dr. Heard-Garris earned her medical degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She later earned a master degree in healthcare research from the University of Michigan.

The full study, “Health Care Use and Health Behaviors Among Young Adults With History of Parental Incarceration,” was published in the journal Pediatrics. It may be accessed here.

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