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Incarceration, Health, and Racial Disparities in Health


  • This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health (#MH19893). I am especially indebted to Ryan King, Glenn Firebaugh, Christopher Uggen, Jason Schnittker, Carroll Seron, and three anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this manuscript.

Please direct all correspondence to Michael Massoglia, Department of Sociology, Penn State University, 211 Oswald Tower, University Park, PA 16802; e-mail:


This article addresses two basic questions. First, it examines whether incarceration has a lasting impact on health functioning. Second, because blacks are more likely than whites to be exposed to the negative effects of the penal system—including fractured social bonds, reduced labor market prospects, and high levels of infectious disease—it considers whether the penal system contributes to racial health disparities. Using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and both regression and propensity matching estimators, the article empirically demonstrates a significant relationship between incarceration and later health status. More specifically, incarceration exerts lasting effects on midlife health functioning. In addition, this analysis finds that, due primarily to disproportionate rates of incarceration, the penal system plays a role in perpetuating racial differences in midlife physical health functioning.