The U.S. leads the world when it comes to incarceration rates — out of every 100,000 people, 716 are in jail. Friends, family and community members are affected, which means the true reach of mass incarceration is sweeping.
According to a new study led by University of Washington researcher and professor of sociology Hedy Lee, it is also staggeringly disparate: Forty-four percent of black women have a family member in prison, compared with 12 percent of white women.
“If you study inequality and mass incarceration, the results aren’t surprising,” Lee said. “But we are providing the actual numbers. Showing that almost half of African-American women are connected to someone incarcerated shows you just how consequential this is for family life.”
Though statistics on race and imprisonment have been widely circulated — blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites — there are gaps to fill when it comes to those who remain outside the prison walls. Prior to this study, no one had presented precise national information on racial inequality in connectedness to prisoners.
The report, published in the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, analyzed the 2006 General Social Survey, finding that racial disparities were consistent across gender and types of personal connections.
Thirty-two percent of black men had a family member in prison, compared with 6 percent of white men. Black women were also far more likely to have a neighbor, acquaintance or someone they trusted in prison than white women.
Ties to prisoners can lead to inequalities that run deeper than simple prison demographics. Friends and family members can face a host of financial, social, emotional and economic consequences, from lost household income to instability.
Some research, for example, has shown that having a father in prison leads to a higher risk of homelessness in childhood and adolescence, as well as negative mental, behavioral and health outcomes.
“There’s a kind of cascade effect, in ways both social and economic, that impacts those families, too,” Lee said. “And therefore, can increase inequality through those pathways.”
The study, coauthored by uw researcher Tyler McCormick, as well as researchers from the University of Michigan and Cornell University, describes the potential meaning of the results:
“Given these high rates of connectedness to prisoners and the vast racial inequality in them, it is likely mass imprisonment has fundamentally reshaped inequality not only for the adult men for whom imprisonment has become common but also their friends and families.”
Moving forward, Lee said she wants to see more research on how connections to prisoners vary across socioeconomic status, as well as the consequences of having a family member in jail.
“Now that we actually have the numbers, we can hopefully use these as policy tools, levers or even ways for people to gain more awareness about the trickle-down effect of living in a country where we incarcerate at such a high rate,” Lee said. “And I hope this population becomes more visible.”