I remember every collapsing sensation in my body when I received the phone call notifying me of his death. I was 22, he was 23 — my boyfriend had died in a freak hiking accident. His loss was devastating to all of us who loved him. His loss was also tragic for the communities he could have continued to contribute to. The future potential of this young man was never fully realized. But I take comfort knowing that up until my boyfriend’s death, he was living freely, wildly and pursuing his dreams.
Twelve thousand other individuals are released from state and federal prisons around this country each week, dreaming of living freely and pursuing their goals. Yet they face great risks that they are not aware of, that their loved ones are not aware of, that our community members are not aware of — they face an alarmingly heightened risk for death compared to other people.
Formerly incarcerated individuals have a death rate 3.5 times that of individuals who have never been incarcerated. During the first two weeks after release, this risk skyrockets. Formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 13 times more likely to die in those two weeks when compared to other people. Risk for death more than doubles for individuals who have been incarcerated multiple times. The leading causes of death for formerly incarcerated individuals in the year after release from incarceration are drug overdose, chronic illness, homicide and suicide.
My decadeslong research discoveries show that most individuals released from incarceration share dreams just like you and me, just like my boyfriend had before his untimely death. Most come home to loved ones desperate to welcome them back into their families and eager to see them do well. Having served their time for their crime, most individuals leaving prison are hopeful to finally pursue those dreams now that they are released from the confinement of concrete walls and iron bars.
Unfortunately, my research also shows that, far too often, after spending years incarcerated, their individual life pursuits on hold, these individuals die within a few short months of release. Unlike my boyfriend, the last years of most formerly incarcerated individuals’ lives are spent hundreds of miles away from their children and loved ones, often in scary, volatile and socially isolating incarceration environments.
I have an active research study in Florida as well as three other states examining the experiences of 1,543 individuals after their release from incarceration. Sadly, 11 of our study participants have died since they began their release (July 2018). Nearly half of the deceased participants — five in total — were from Florida. The other six were evenly distributed across the other three states (Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas).
The families to whom these individuals returned had lost their formerly incarcerated loved ones before they were able to fully reunite. Our communities lost the potential future contributions of these individuals. They died, on average, six months after their release from prison. Two individuals died within days of release; one individual survived for just over 10 months.
The 11 deceased participants were an average of 35 years old at their time of death — the youngest was just 20; the oldest was 62. Over half of the deceased participants were parents. For the most part, we lost these individuals to preventable deaths — three participants were murdered, two died of chronic illness, one died of a drug overdose, one died by suicide, and one was killed in a car accident. The cause of death for the remaining three participants are unknown.
Abuse, mental health disorders
The cycle of violence was undeniable in the lives of our study participants prior to their deaths. They were victims of abuse as children or adolescents, then were victimized or revictimized as adults. Some participants also perpetrated violence against others. Ten of the 11 deceased participants had witnessed death and murder, consistent with our other findings.
Also consistent with our other findings, many of the deceased participants experienced severe psychological distress and met psychiatric criteria for a range of mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and psychosis, amplified by their experiences of incarceration. For many, symptoms of mental health disorders began when they were between 9 and 11 years old.
Many participants began drinking alcohol and using drugs as children — often before their 13th birthday. Substance use during such a critical and sensitive period of neurodevelopment has long-lasting adverse effects on memory, judgment and one’s sense of self.
Participants’ lives were defined by the number of missed prevention and intervention opportunities — for child maltreatment, domestic violence, mental health and substance use disorders, and school drop-out.
Before incarceration, several participants tried to access community-based health services as well as mental health and substance use disorder treatment services. Care was often beyond their reach, consistent with our other findings.
It is becoming common knowledge that an overwhelming majority of individuals who have incarceration histories have life trajectories riddled with “unrelenting trauma,” psychological distress, and mental health and substance use disorders. However, these factors are rarely addressed by prevention and intervention efforts. Rather, most Americans — policymakers, criminal justice and corrections stakeholders, and community members — expect these individuals to return home from incarceration and magically overcome the lasting effects of psychological harm and physical illness that were created by their life histories.
Communities across our state and our country can no longer afford to have weak systems of care for children suffering maltreatment, incapacitated communities that don’t prevent violence, incapacitated health care and nonexistent systems of care to help people recover from substance abuse or manage symptoms of mental illnesses.
This is a life and death situation. Criminal justice and corrections professionals are not able, and should not be expected to, provide these public health safety nets. Other policymakers, funders, professionals, advocates and all of us in communities across the nation must step up and contribute to the prevention of trauma, crime and death before or after an incarceration experience ever occurs.
Carrie Pettus-Davis is associate professor of social work at Florida State University and founding executive director of the Institute for Justice Research and Development. She is co-founder of the Smart Decarceration Initiative and co-leads the Promote Smart Decarceration grand challenge network.