Mass Incarceration’s Impact on US Life Expectancy

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Yves here. Highly unequal societies have lower life expectancy, even for high income cohorts, compared to the top wealthy in more equal countries. But the life span costs are more obvious at the bottom of the food chain.

Note the US prison population has fallen but remains at a high level. From the Sentencing Project:

However, even though the US is no longer the worst in the world in terms of prisoners per capita, look at our company. From Statista:

By Fred Clasen-Kelly, a senior correspondent for KFF Health News. Originally published at KFF Health News

After spending 38 years in the Alabama prison system, one of the most violent and crowded in the nation, Larry Jordan felt lucky to live long enough to regain his freedom.

The decorated Vietnam War veteran had survived prostate cancer and hepatitis C behind bars when a judge granted him early release late last year.

“I never gave up hope,” said Jordan, 74, who lives in Alabama. “I know a lot of people in prison who did.”

At least 6,182 people died in state and federal prisons in 2020, a 46 percent jump from the previous year, according to data recently released by researchers from the UCLA Law Behind Bars Data Project.

“During the pandemic, a lot of prison sentences became death sentences,” said Wanda Bertram, a spokesperson for the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit that conducts research and data analysis on the criminal justice system.

Now, Jordan worries about his longevity. He struggles with pain in his legs and feet caused by a potentially life-threatening vascular blockage, and research suggests prison accelerates the aging process.

Life expectancy fell in the United States in 2021 for the second year in a row, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That decline is linked to the devastating effect of Covid-19 and a spike in drug overdoses.

Some academic experts and activists said the trend also underscores the lasting health consequences of mass incarceration in a nation with roughly 2 million imprisoned or jailed people, one of the highest rates in the developed world.

A Senate report last year found the U.S. Department of Justice failed to identify more than 900 deaths in prisons and local jails in fiscal year 2021. The report said the DOJ’s poor data collection and reporting undermined transparency and congressional oversight of deaths in custody.

Thousands of people like Jordan are released from prisons and jails every year with conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and infectious diseases they developed while incarcerated. The issue hits hard in Alabama, Louisiana, and other Southeastern states, which have some of the highest incarceration rates in the nation.

A major reason the U.S. trails other developed countries in life expectancy is because it has more people behind bars and keeps them there far longer, said Chris Wildeman, a Duke University sociology professor who has researched the link between criminal justice and life expectancy.

“It’s a health strain on the population,” Wildeman said. “The worse the prison conditions, the more likely it is incarceration can be tied to excess mortality.”

Mass incarceration has a ripple effect across society.

Incarcerated people may be more susceptible than the general population to infectious diseases such as Covid and HIV that can spread to loved ones and other community members once they are released. The federal government has also failed to collect or release enough information about deaths in custody that could be used to identify disease patterns and prevent fatalities and illness inside and outside of institutions, researchers said.

Over a 40-year span starting in the 1980s, the number of people in the nation’s prisons and jails more than quadrupled, fueled by tough-on-crime policies and the war on drugs.

Federal lawmakers and states such as Alabama have passed reforms in recent years amid bipartisan agreement that prison costs have grown too high and that some people could be released without posing a risk to public safety.

The changes have come too late and not gone far enough to curb the worst effects on health, some researchers and activists for reform said.

Still, no one has proven that incarceration alone shortens life expectancy. But research from the early 2000s did show the death rate for people leaving prison was 3.5 times higher than for the rest of the population in the first few years after release. Experts found deaths from drug use, violence, and lapses in access to health care were especially high in the first two weeks after release.

Another study found that currently or formerly incarcerated Black people suffered a 65 percent higher mortality rate than their non-Black peers. Black people also make up a disproportionately high percentage of state prison populations.

The enactment in 2000 of the Death in Custody Reporting Act, and its reauthorization in 2014, required the DOJ to collect information about deaths in state and local jails and prisons.

The information is supposed to include details on the time and location of a death, demographic data on the deceased, the agency involved, and the manner of death.

But a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that 70 percent of the records the DOJ received were missing at least one required data point. Federal officials also lacked a plan to take corrective action against states that didn’t meet reporting requirements, the GAO found.

The deficiency in data means the federal government can’t definitively say how many people have died in prisons and jails since the Covid-19 pandemic began, researchers said.

“Without data, we are operating in the dark,” said Andrea Armstrong, a professor at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, who has testified before Congress on the issue.

Armstrong said federal and state officials need the data to identify institutions failing to provide proper health care, nutritious food, or other services that can save lives.

The DOJ did not make officials available for interviews to answer questions about the GAO report.

In a written statement, agency officials said they were working with law enforcement and state officials to overcome barriers to full and accurate reporting.

“The Justice Department recognizes the profound importance of reducing deaths in custody,” the statement said. “Complete and accurate data are essential for drawing meaningful conclusions about factors that may contribute to unnecessary or premature deaths, and promising practices and policies that can reduce the number of deaths.”

Department officials said the agency is committed to enhancing its implementation of the Death in Custody Reporting Act and that it has ramped up its efforts to improve the quality and quantity of data that it collects.

The DOJ has accused Alabama, where Jordan was incarcerated, of failing to adequately protect incarcerated people from violence, sexual abuse, and excessive force by prison staff, and of holding prisoners in unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

The deficiency in data means the federal government can’t definitively say how many people have died in prisons and jails since the Covid-19 pandemic began, researchers said.

Jordan served 38 years of a 40-year sentence for reckless murder stemming from a car accident, which his lawyer argued in his petition for early release was one of the longest sentences in Alabama history for the crime. A jury had found him guilty of being drunk while driving a vehicle that crashed with another, killing a man. If he were convicted today instead, he would be eligible to receive a sentence as short as 13 years behind bars, because he has no prior felony history, wrote Alabama Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace, who reviewed Jordan’s petition for early release.

With legal help from Redemption Earned, an Alabama nonprofit headed by a former state Supreme Court chief justice, Jordan petitioned the court for early release.

On Sept. 26, 2022, Wallace signed an order releasing Jordan from prison under a rule that allows Alabama courts to reconsider sentences.

A few months later, Jordan said, he had surgery to treat a vascular blockage that was reducing blood flow to his left leg and left foot. A picture shows a long surgical scar stretching from his thigh to near his ankle.

The Alabama Department of Corrections refused an interview request to answer questions about conditions in the state’s prisons.

Jordan said his vascular condition was excruciating. He said he did not receive adequate treatment for it in prison: “You could see my foot dying.”


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  1. David in Friday Harbor

    Prisons are wretched, overcrowded, and unhealthy places.

    Thanks to the re-examination of the 1990’s policies of mass-incarceration, my review of recent statistical reporting showed that today the vast majority of the prison population are detained for behavior involving the serious risk of taking a life. What is the “correct” response when someone’s callous and selfish behavior takes away the innocent life of the loved-one of strangers?

    How about we build a culture that values all lives equally? We wouldn’t need prisons at all. Sadly, our neoliberal billionaire oligarchy could never accept such a notion. So long as narcissism, rent extraction, and kicking-down are modeled as virtuous behaviors, we will continue to reap the whirlwind.

    1. tevhatch

      my review of recent statistical reporting showed that today the vast majority of the prison population are detained for behavior involving the serious risk of taking a life. What is the “correct” response when someone’s callous and selfish behavior takes away the innocent life of the loved-one of strangers?

      Too bad you didn’t blog or otherwise make public all the data about your study, as it would have been of great interest.

          1. tevhatch

            The report only covers state system, not city, county, or Federal. ie: you picked the most dangerous segment for your slice…. I’m going to stop here.

          2. David in Friday Harbor

            This Wikipedia-sourced (it’s gotta be true!) response conveniently ignores my entire point: that in a just and equal society in which all people cared for the welfare of their fellow citizens, fewer crimes would be committed in the first place.

            There would be no need for brutal and inhumane incarceration. The few true psychopaths would be sent to Norwegian-style islands where they could tend to their gardens under the watchful eye of a few policemen.

            Weekly mass-shootings are symptoms of an unjust and unequal society that values rent-extraction by 900 sociopathic billionaires and their PMC toadies over the welfare of everyone else. Do we excuse these mass-shootings because of this? Or do we strive to create a more just and mutually respectful society in which no one would even think of shooting up a schoolhouse or a shopping mall?

    2. NoFreeWill

      The large majority is people (disproportionately black/brown) locked up for minor drug/petty theft crimes due to 3 strikes laws/etc. none of which threatens anyones life, except maybe their own (excluding the vast pop with marijuana crimes) and federally weed is still illegal and people are still being locked up for it. Punitive measures don’t create rehabilitation anyways so the result of the neoliberal war on the poor/drug users is just more crime making more crime in turn.

      1. Paris

        Check above comment. This marijuana prison rate is an urban legend. Maybe you want to legalize fentanyl?

  2. TomW

    “the death rate for people leaving prison was 3.5 times higher than for the rest of the population in the first few years after release. Experts found deaths from drug use, violence…”

    If prison is the cause of excess mortality, one might normally assume that being released from prison would reduce excess mortality, not increase it.

  3. Lexx

    How old were the prisoners biologically when they went in? That seems to me like a more interesting question, biological vs. chronological age.

    The stress of poverty accelerates the aging process, that has been proven. Being born a POC + poverty in America, even more so. The majority of the prison population are POC, but most of the the white prisoners come from poverty as well. So, how old were they really when they were locked in those pressure cookers called the correctional system? Chronologically 22 but biologically going on 35? Mid-forties when they’re released but biologically closer to 60.

    Shortening their lives and erasing their future is the point. It’s the looong reach of the law.

  4. none

    I have been wondering if the recent decreases in life expectancy (due to covid, I had thought) are reflected in life insurance premiums. Anyone know if those have gone up? If not, will we start seeing insurance company insolvencies?

  5. JBird4049

    The War on (some) Drugs, which was the beginning of our current mass incarceration at all levels, federal, state, county, and town and city, was President Richard M. Nixon’s war against Blacks and hippies; they were not only an oversized part of the reform movements, they were a large part of the Democratic Party, and their reputation among many White Americans was not good anyways. Do not forget that after about 1970, it was not cool being explicitly racist or attack the members of a political party in racist terms. Nixon’s War on Drugs as well as his Southern Strategy split the until then Black Republicans into the Democratic Party, changed the political parties allegiances and membership, and created much of system that we are in.

    Please don’t forget that the Democrats before President Nixon’s efforts had been the party of the Solid South, AKA, the Confederacy. Democratic President Lyndon Baines Johnson started the serious political system’s wobbling with his Civil Rights legislation and the Great Society Program; add President JFK’s reluctant support, and the Civil Rights Movement, which started before then, and the racist Southern Democratic Party’s members were looking for some pushback after twenty years of being pushed.

    I think that much of what is our carceral state is based off of the post Reconstruction White leadership creating, but, paraphrasing another writer, slavery under a different name. Bluntly, bribes to build prisons and jails to profit from the construction and the business from the staff for the local community, tough on crime propaganda for elections, slave prisoner staffed industries, and possibly a bump in political clout due to the increasing population. Political representation is partly based on the total population of an area and not their legal status after all. There is no three-fifths clause to reduce the pernicious effects of a large disenfranchised community unlike before the Civil War. Also, it is not important if all this is profitable or beneficial to a larger community like a state or city. What matters is who benefits the leadership of a community. This means that while prison labor is not more profitable than a normal business and the prisons, jails, and the one million people in armed law enforcement are a unproductive of society (with the understanding that there is always going to be a very small amount of people who will have to be locked up and the keys lost or be executed. No one’s fault. Just is.)

    We have very roughly two million people incarcerated, with as best as can be calculated 2.4 percent of them being innocent. That is forty-eight thousand people and that is the minimum estimate. (I am having an impossible time linking a source for some reason, but the Innocence Project among others has the breakdown of the estimates.)

    Another one million homeless.

    This is three million people or not quite one percent of the nation being disposed of. We are doing well aren’t we? /s

    Plus the one million police “protecting” us with the always growing numbers of metal detectors, hidden cameras, hidden microphones, armed(?) robots, drones, helicopters, armored vehicles, literal machine guns, assault rifles, snipers, grenades, tear-gas, plus the ability to search* anyone, anytime, for any reason or none at all, the growing censorship, plus a near complete lack of accountability…

    They are slowly incarcerating the entire American nation ostensibly for our safety.

    Is anyone feeling safe yet?

    *Customs and Border Patrol have the right to search any vehicles or people with in a hundred miles of the border as well as do checkpoints with in that zone. And they do so.

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