Mass incarceration and the inequality of infant mortality

Incarceration is not only a political and social issue, but has also become a public health issue as massive amounts of people are imprisoned each year. America spends $49 billion each year to accommodate the 6.6% of the adult population that can expect to be imprisoned at some point their lives. 20 years ago the costs of prisons each year was a mere $11 billion. The sharp increase of incarcerated Americans has made the U.S. into a nation that has both the highest number of incarcerated individuals in the world and the highest percentage of incarcerated individuals. The U.S. exceeds even China’s number and percentage of incarcerated individuals, a far more populated nation than America. Mass incarceration not only leads to less funding for higher education but can also lead to dangerous public health issues such as higher rates of infant mortality.

Infant mortality is one of the most crucial indicators of the health of a nation because it is associated with a variety of nation-wide factors such as maternal health, quality and access to medical care, socioeconomic conditions, and public health practices. Currently the U.S. infant mortality rate is 7 out of every 1,000 births, far exceeding those of comparably developed nations and with greater black-white disparities than other nations. There are currently large amounts of concern surrounding the U.S. infant mortality rate since it has not significantly declined since 2005, which is the first period of sustained lack of decline since the 1950s. Mass incarceration not only fosters inequality for African Americans but also diminishes a child’s chances of surviving its first year of life, which combined together can further hinder a child’s life chances.

It has been found that recent parental incarceration elevates the risk for early infant death by 29.6%. African Americans may be at an even more elevated risk for early infant death due to the fact that in 2009 African Americans accounted for 38.2% of the prison population, even though they only accounted for 12.4% of the general population. African American males are on average 6 times more likely to be incarcerated than a Caucasian male.

Infant mortality is influenced by mass incarceration in multiple ways; some issues can be seen at a statewide level and other issues are more focused towards the individual. African American infants are affected considerably more than Caucasian infants due to the fact that fewer Caucasians are incarcerated each year than African Americans. Over 25% of black children born in 1990 experienced parental imprisonment, while only 3.6% of white children did. At the statewide level, imprisonment heightens wage inequality and leaves black families at a greater risk of poverty. Diminished financial resources and financial instability is not only stressful to mothers but also leaves families without an opportunity to pursue good health and nutrition choices. Chronic maternal stress is linked to an elevated infant mortality risk. Increased spending on correction facilities decreases the funding available for programs to promote population health, leading to women having a lack of knowledge on the ways to prevent early infant death and to them having more health issues that can affect the health of their infant while they are pregnant and after they have given birth.

At the individual level, imprisonment can negatively affect the health of incarcerated individuals and in turn negatively affect the health of their partners and their infants. Imprisonment exacerbates racial disparities in AIDS. Since more black men are incarcerated each year than white men, more black men are exposed to infectious diseases. This not only compromises the health of black men but also their partners, leading to more families contracting infectious diseases and in turn putting their infants’ health at risk. Because of the large amount of stigma associated with incarceration, women who have partners in prison are withdrawn from their social networks. This not only leaves women with a lack of emotional support but also prevents them from receiving information on how to prevent early infant death from their neighbors or friends. Having a partner incarcerated may also negatively affect a woman’s depression, which can harm infant health through numerous mechanisms. Having contact with the criminal justice system also decreases a man’s ability to play the roles of partner and father; they are socialized to resolve conflict with violence and are also at risk for repeatedly offending.

Out of every ethnicity represented in the United States, African Americans have the single highest rate of infant mortality. Mass incarceration can be attributed with partial responsibility for the unmistakably high American infant mortality rate and the considerable inequality found between African American and Caucasian’s infant mortality rate. Had the large prison boom not occurred, the disparity between white and black early infant death might have been one-seventh smaller. Even though all of the factors associated with elevated infant mortality risk for the infants of prisoners, African American families are more greatly affected due to racial disparity and inequality within the prison system.


Imprisonment and Infant Mortality