New Study Finds Infants of Fathers Incarcerated During Gestation Were Associated with 58% to Over 200% Higher Odds of Adverse Outcomes Than Unexposed Births

Births exposed to paternal jail incarceration during gestation were more likely to be born late preterm, low birthweight and require NICU admission
youngmin yi
UMass Amherst researcher Youngmin Yi 

AMHERST, Mass. – A new study of all live births and jail incarcerations in New York City from 2010-2016 has found that births exposed to paternal jail incarceration during gestation were associated with 58% to over 200% higher odds of adverse outcomes than unexposed births, including increased odds of late preterm birth, low birthweight, small for gestational age (SGA), and Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) admission.

A team of researchers, including University of Massachusetts Amherst sociologist Youngmin Yi, used linked administrative records to examine associations between paternal jail incarceration and infant birth outcomes. They found a two-percentage point increase in the likelihoods of late preterm and low birth weight birth from a baseline prevalence of 6%, a one-percentage point increase in the likelihood of NICU admission from a baseline prevalence of 9%, and a less-than-one-percentage point increase in the likelihoods of SGA birth and a low Apgar (appearance, pulse, grimace, activity and respiration) score off a baseline prevalence of 2% and 1%, respectively. The results of the study were published online by Maternal and Child Health Journal.

“The main takeaway from our analyses is that paternal incarceration, even at lower levels (i.e. jail) and with varying intensities and across racial/ethnic groups, appears to be strongly associated with increased likelihoods of birth outcomes and conditions that impact health in infancy and over the life course,” says Yi, an assistant professor of sociology at UMass Amherst and lead author of the new paper. “For example, even after accounting for an array of parental and contextual characteristics, we find that births to fathers incarcerated in jail during pregnancy or at birth have 39% greater odds of being low birthweight and 35% greater odds of being small for their gestational age.”

The estimated associations for paternal incarceration are 64-92% the magnitude of estimated associations for maternal smoking, according to the researchers, which they say suggests “that paternal incarceration is a strong, though more modest, risk factor for adverse infant health.”

“There is a growing evidence base of the broad and multifaceted consequences of our society’s response to crime on people who are incarcerated and those linked to them,” Yi says. “However, it has been limited by the challenges of bringing together data on both criminal legal system contact and health, particularly in investigations of wellbeing in early life. This cross-sector and interdisciplinary collaboration allowed us to explore the relationship between incarceration and health using new data on entire cohorts of births in New York City.”

Joining Yi in the study were Joseph Kennedy, Cynthia Chazotte, Mary Huynh and Yang Jiang of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and principal investigator Christopher Wildeman, professor of sociology at Duke University and the ROCKWOOL Foundation Research Unit.

Yi’s team linked administrative data from the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) and the New York City Bureau of Vital Statistics to create a child-level data set of all children born in NYC from January 1, 2010 through December 31, 2016. Of the 855,632 infants born between 2010-16, 3.8% (32,634) were linked to at least one parental jail record and 0.9%, or 7,299, were linked to at least one maternal or paternal jail record during pregnancy or at the time of birth. The analytic sample was restricted using five criteria, omitting births whose full gestational periods were not observed in the data, that were multiple births, without named birth fathers on the birth certificate, missing information for any outcome or covariate measures in the models or were exposed to maternal incarceration during gestation. The final analytic sample consisted of 627,118 births, or 73% of live births between 2010 and 2016 in NYC.

A newborn was identified as having been exposed to paternal incarceration if the father named on their birth record was linked to an NYC jail spell between 2010 and 2016 in the DOC records. In the analytic sample, fathers of 0.8% – or 5,032 – of births were incarcerated in an NYC jail at some point while the child was in utero.

The researchers explain in the paper that other studies have “focused exclusively on prisons or have been unable to differentiate between prison and jail incarceration, with little study of the consequences of paternal jail incarceration, although jail incarceration is far more common than imprisonment and tends to be shorter-term, with uniquely uncertain and volatile conditions of confinement that includes pretrial detention for many.” They note that “these distinctions between jail and prison incarceration mean that infant health may be differently associated with parental jail incarceration than parental imprisonment.”

Yi says, “Our findings further demonstrate the need to treat incarceration, both one’s own and that of others, as an important risk factor for health and health inequality in early life and over the life course.”

The complete article, “Paternal Jail Incarceration and Birth Outcomes: Evidence from New York City, 2010–2016,” is available from Maternal and Child Health Journal.