Prison time cuts lifespan until parole ends

VANDERBILT (US) — For every year spent behind bars, a person’s overall life expectancy decreases by two years.

A new study looks at New York parolees released between 1989 and 2003 and reports a 15.6 percent increase in the odds of death for parolees compared to people who had never been to prison.


“There is a growing need to understand the health consequences of incarceration because more people experience this event now than at any other moment in American history,” says Evelyn Patterson, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.

The average American male has a 9 percent chance of going to prison in his lifetime, Patterson says, citing 1991 incarceration rates. That jumps to 16 percent for Hispanic males and 28.5 percent for black males.

“Much work on prison inmates concentrates on outcomes such as denial of citizen rights, increased morbidity risks, and erosion of lifetime earnings and job opportunities,” Patterson says. “Such collateral consequences of incarceration can be reversed.

“Death, though, cannot be reversed. It is this lack of reversal that makes this area of study so consequential.”

The difficulty of getting proper health care in the months immediately after prison is a particular problem, Patterson says. Many times an inmate with an illness is discharged from prison with a 30-day supply of medication and little chance of connecting with a new healthcare provider.

The study, published online in American Journal of Public Health, did turn up a small bright spot, Patterson says. If a prisoner serves out parole without returning to prison, he eventually gains the years back to his lifespan lost during his prison stay.

“This finding is in line with prior research which reports high risk of death initially that declines over time,” Patterson says.

“Scientists have dedicated centuries of research in an attempt to understand the levels of mortality in human populations and lowering them,” Patterson says.

“This study demonstrated that one of the United States’ core institutions does the exact opposite. This is particularly distressing given that the United States supersedes every other nation in its propensity to incarcerate.”

Source: Vanderbilt University