Published: January 28, 2020

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2019-30


Michael E. Roettger and Brian Houle.

Non-Technical Summary:

Approximately one-in-six young adults in the United States report that at least one biological parent was imprisoned at some point in childhood. Parental imprisonment is recognized as a childhood trauma linked to adversity at later stages in the life course, including homelessness, poor educational outcomes, antisocial behavior, imprisonment, substance abuse, mental health issues, and poverty. In recent decades, research has explored the relationship between parental imprisonment in later life, with parental imprisonment linked to a higher risk of infant and adult mortality, obesity, respiratory illnesses, physical disability, and developmental delays in childhood. Recent cross-sectional studies have also found associations between parental imprisonment and risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDs, chlamydia, and gonorrhea.

Building on cross-sectional research, we examine the relationship between childhood parental imprisonment and reported STI infection in adulthood, examining patterns by age, gender of parent and child, and ethnicity of respondent. Among adults ages 24-32, both mother and father imprisonment were similarly linked with increased lifetime reports for being diagnosed with an STI. Lifetime risk for STIs increased similarly among women and minority groups, however risks compounded by gender, ethnicity, and history of parental imprisonment. For example, 10% of non-black males with no history of parental imprisonment reported ever having an STI, while 62% of black females with a history of parental imprisonment reported ever having an STI. Longitudinal analysis for individuals ages 18-32 showed that having a history of father imprisonment was associated with a higher risk of being diagnosed with an STI in the prior year, with similar compounded risk by gender, ethnicity, and history of father imprisonment.

When taken in context of existing research, our findings help to shed insight into how increased risk of STIs may impact adults who have experienced parental imprisonment. First, given that substantive bodies of research have shown that women and minorities are at greater risk for STIs, experiencing parental imprisonment increases an individual’s risk of STI infection. Secondly, STIs are often asymptomatic at time of infection, but are associated with increased risk for a range of later health issues, including infertility, cancer, low birth weight and preterm birth in women, mortality, and antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. This implies that the increased risk of STI infection serves as a life course event linked with health issues in later life, and may act as a mechanism through which parental imprisonment is associated with later health issues. Lastly, by examining risk over time, we are able to better establish the association between experiencing paternal imprisonment in childhood and later adult risk for STI infection.

We end by noting that STI infection rates have increased substantially in both the US and Australia in the last decade. Our study suggests that developing policies and interventions for individuals who experience imprisonment may help to reduce the prevalence of STI infections, particularly among subpopulations who are more likely to experience parental imprisonment.


January 28, 2020