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The Ripple Effects of Mass Incarceration

New study: Nearly half of Americans have had a family member incarcerated.

Rawf8/Adobe Stock
Source: Rawf8/Adobe Stock

Approximately 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States in state and federal prisons, juvenile correctional facilities, local jails, and psychiatric facilities.

While that number may seem staggering, what’s more, surprising is the ripple effect of imprisonment. A study published this month found that 45 percent of all Americans have had an immediate family member spend time in jail or prison. That number jumps to 64 percent if extended family is included.

The study was published in the journal Socius by a researcher from the Bronfenbrenner Center on Translational Research (BCTR).

“The core takeaway is family member incarceration is even more common than any of us – all of whom are experts in the field – had anticipated,” said Christopher Wildeman, director of the BCTR and a co-author of the study. “This survey really shows who the victims of mass incarceration are: the folks who have to manage households and grow up absent a loved one.”

To gather the data, researchers surveyed more than 4,000 people about whether members of their immediate family – including a parent, sibling, spouse or domestic partner, stepsiblings or immediate foster family member – or extended family – including grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews or in-laws – have ever been held in jail or prison for a night or more, and for how long. In an effort to represent people who are often overlooked in national surveys – such as young adults, households with a low socio-economic status, those without internet access and Spanish speakers – participants were able to take the survey online or by phone, and in English or in Spanish.

Having a family member in prison has a major effect on a person’s life. Data from other studies show that families of prisoners are more likely to experience physical and mental health problems. Children of incarcerated individuals experience dips in their academic performance. And people who are incarcerated are much more likely to get divorced compared to those who are not incarcerated.

The study found that people who are African-American and those who have low education levels are significantly more likely to have an immediate family member incarcerated. But no group is completely insulated: Among Caucasian people with a college education, 15 percent have had an immediate family member imprisoned.

“That breaks pretty sharply from the standard narrative that we’ve heard in the research community and in popular discourse about how white, college-educated folks are completely insulated from those risks,” Wildeman said. “And, indeed, this provides further evidence that mass incarceration is a profoundly American phenomenon and something that we as a society must confront together.” He said he hopes the study will destigmatize the incarceration of family members.

The take-home message: More people are affected by incarceration in the United States than we previously realized. The trend of sending people to jail and prisons has seriously and potentially long-last effects on their loved ones.

Visit Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research’s website for more information on our work solving human problems.

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