Research News

What a prison sentence continues to take after release


The years a prison sentence takes away from an inmate don’t end at the time spent behind bars, said a Vanderbilt researcher. For every year actually spent in prison, overall life expectancy decreases two years.

A new study published by Evelyn Patterson, assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt, looks at New York parolees released between 1989 and 2003. The result, published online Jan. 17 by American Journal of Public Health, was a 15.6 percent increase in the odds of death for parolees compared to people who had never been to prison, which translates to a two-year decline in life expectancy for every year served inside prison.

[lquote]“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[/lquote],” Patterson said.

The average American male has a 9 percent chance of going to prison in his lifetime, Patterson said, 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 said. “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.”

Evelyn Patterson (Vanderbilt)

The study did turn up a small bright spot, Patterson said. 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 said.

The difficulty of getting proper health care in the months immediately after prison is a particular problem, Patterson said. 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 health care provider.

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

“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.”