Academics People and Community

Medical sociologist strives to give a voice to the powerless

Newly minted Ph.D. Oshea Johnson has studied the impact of mass incarceration on the health of inmates and their significant others. He will soon begin a two-year postdoc as an epidemic intelligence service officer with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hopes his research will serve as a platform for reform in the criminal legal and penal systems.
Oshea Johnson
Oshea Johnson graduated from the University of Miami with a Ph.D. in sociology. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

When University of Miami doctoral student Oshea Johnson visited a Miami-Dade County probation office as part of a sociology study led by one of his faculty mentors, he made a keen observation: nearly all the people who accompanied parolees to the facility were women.

From girlfriends and wives to mothers and grandmothers, they were women from all walks of life, who, over the past few years, had been supporting male loved ones both during and after their imprisonment, Johnson would learn.

And that gave him an idea. 

He already knew that incarceration has a detrimental impact on the health of inmates, triggering and even exacerbating chronic and noncommunicable diseases as well as mental disorders. But what effect, he wondered, does it have on the health of inmates’ support networks on the outside.

So, he began a yearslong study to find out, delving into the most intimate familial details of women who are in such relationships and documenting his results in a study. And what he discovered is that they endure a multitude of challenges that cause their own physical and mental health to deteriorate. 

“These women are the voices and advocates for otherwise powerless men in the prison and jail system,” said Johnson, who graduated from the University of Miami this May with a Ph.D. in sociology. “With their boyfriends, husbands, or sons behind bars, they keep their families together while navigating their own everyday lives. But they experience negative outcomes as a result of it—anxiety, depression, stress, weight gain, sleeplessness. Some even had to go on medication.”

For his study, he interviewed a dozen Black and Hispanic women from across Florida who have a loved one serving time in a state correctional facility. To find women to participate in the study, Johnson posted fliers at laundromats and libraries, recreational centers and food marts. He also contacted organizations that work closely with family members who have incarcerated loved ones.

“They described being frustrated with the criminal legal system, encountering roadblocks communicating with their incarcerated loved one, and facing financial difficulties because a spouse or boyfriend, who was the breadwinner of the house, was no longer around,” Johnson explained.

One study participant, who has a number of medical conditions, decided against purchasing health insurance because she couldn’t afford it, instead buying health coverage for her children.

“They make sacrifices that put their own health at risk,” Johnson said.

“I feel old. I feel like I’ve gone through so much in such a short span of time, and, of course, it changes your quality of life,” said Sarah, whose son is awaiting trial. 

“It’s stressful. Sometimes I don’t even realize how much it’s weighing on me. I’m conditioned to expect that call, and I’m waiting on that call, and when that call doesn’t come, I feel my tensions rise, my stress levels increase,” said Lashawn, describing what it’s like anticipating phone calls from her husband, who is serving time.

But Johnson did more than simply conduct interviews. He also examined health data from communities throughout the nation, comparing that information to health statistics from prisons to show that incarceration is associated with higher incidents of hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other conditions. 

Johnson said he can easily empathize with many of the subjects in his study. He grew up in a poor, underserved community in Washington, D.C., often seeing friends and neighbors fall victim to heath care, employment, and income inequities. His life experiences played a role in his decision to become a medical sociologist. 

He will soon begin a two-year postdoctoral fellowship with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, investigating infectious disease outbreaks and responding to natural disasters and other threats to public health. 

Johnson hopes his research will serve as a platform for reform in the criminal legal and penal systems.

“Doing research and doing good research is part of what we should be doing as scholars,” he said. “I want my work to uplift the voices of the powerless, the people in communities that are the hardest hit by inequality.”