The Impact of Family Members’ Incarceration on Black Women’s Mental Health

    A new study shows that Black women who have experienced having a family member incarcerated have higher levels of stress and depression symptoms. The research supports past scientific findings on the subject, but also fills significant gaps in knowledge.

    The study, led by Evelyn Patterson, Ryan Talbert and Tony Brown, was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family and looked at a nationally representative sample of 1,961 African American women in a range of employment roles who have never been incarcerated. It collected data indicating signs of psychological distress or depression, which of the subjects’ family members were incarcerated, and any connections to their social roles as parents, spouses, or employees.

    Critically, this study included Black women whose siblings were incarcerated. “Most studies that look at the impact of incarceration are examining people who are parents or the children of someone who is incarcerated,” Patterson said in an interview with Vanderbilt University press. “That means, if you’re not a parent or a child of an incarcerated person, you’re excluded.”

    She explained that more than half of all African American women in the US report having at least one family member incarcerated—but the most common is to have a sibling incarcerated, rather than a parent or child.

    The study found that across the board, having a family member incarcerated is associated with worsened mental health outcomes. Women who were employed and not parents or spouses had slightly better health outcomes, but they too experienced increases in stress and depression symptoms.

    “From slavery, to lynching, to incarceration, generations of African American families have endured having their family members taken away,” Patterson said. “African Americans have had to learn how to compartmentalize this trauma and have survived, in part, due to their resilience. But this resilience is a double-edged sword as these experiences worsen health outcomes.”

    The overall research findings should come as little surprise, but are nonetheless important in helping us understand the full, pernicious effects of incarceration on our society. According to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the prevalence of children with incarcerated parents has soared over the past 40 years; this of course tracks a corresponding explosion in the US incarcerated population from 340,000 to over 2.3 million.

    The NIJ estimates that between 1.7 to 2.7 million children will have a parent incarcerated at least once in their youth—meaning 11 percent of children overall are at risk. Black and Latinx children are at much higher risk—being 7.5 times and 2.3 times more likely, respectively, than white children to have an incarcerated parent. The NIJ has shown that parental incarceration affects children’s psychology, risk of criminal involvement, educational attainment and economic well-being—to name just a few.

    Even after incarceration, families can continue to be negatively affected. People with criminal records in many cases face legalized discrimination when seeking housing, education or employment opportunities. People with certain convictions can be barred from receiving public benefits, like food stamps or cash welfare payments, for the rest of their lives. These barriers obviously affect family members who rely on each other for economic and other security.

    More research is needed to further demonstrate how the harms of incarceration extend far beyond prison and jail bars. At the same time, we don’t need to wait for science to tell us that far too many people are incarcerated in the US.


    Image by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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