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Incarceration And Population Health In Wealthy Democracies*


Published online on


Everywhere you look, incarceration seems to be doing harm. Research has implicated incarceration not only in worse outcomes for individuals, their families, and their communities but also in growing inequality. Yet incarceration may not always harm society—even if it does harm those who experience it. To consider this possibility, I build an argument demonstrating how the macro‐level consequences of incarceration may be distinctively harmful in the United States, focusing on the incarceration–health relationship as one indicator of a broader phenomenon. I then test my hypothesis by using an unbalanced panel data set including 21 developed democracies (N = 414) and a series of ordinary least‐squares models predicting three measures of population health as a function of incarceration. Models including only a main effect of incarceration demonstrate an inverse association between changes in incarceration and changes in population health. Models including an incarceration by U.S. interaction, however, indicate that the population health consequences of changes in incarceration are far worse in the United States than elsewhere. Taken together, the results indicate that the United States is exceptional for both its rate of incarceration and its effects of incarceration, although it is unclear what drives this exceptionalism in effects.