Background: Bureau of Justice Statistics data indicate that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and substantial disparities exist between incarceration rates for Whites and minorities. Research on the impact of incarceration usually focuses on the sentenced individual and occasionally on the children of incarcerated parents. The health consequences of incarceration may also extend to other family members and friends left behind in the community, exacerbating racial disparities in physical and mental health.

Objectives: We used a community-based public health survey to assess how incarceration of a friend or family member was associated with physical and mental health status.

Methods: Participants provided information on physical and mental health status in a county- wide telephone health interview.

Results: Controlling for demographics and health-related behaviors, individuals knowing someone who was recently incarcerated reported worse mental and physical health. Blacks were more likely to report knowing someone who was incarcerated and also felt closer to the incarcerated individuals. The degree of felt closeness with someone incarcerated was positively correlated with worse physical health (Pearson r = 0.14; P < .01) and mental health (Pearson r = 0.09; P < .05).

Conclusions: Our results indicate that the incarceration of close others influences mental and physical health and the health disparities between Blacks and Whites. More attention should be given to the potential effects of incarceration on the people closest to those incarcerated.