The Far-Reaching Effects of American Incarceration

You can debate why the United States has the world’s largest inmate population, with some 2.2 million people in prisons and jails (China is second, with 1.5 million), as well as the world’s highest incarceration rate, with 690 out of every 100,000 people locked up (the next major nation is Russia, with 440). You can also debate, as scholars and criminal justice authorities do, why America’s incarceration rate has shot up dramatically, more than sixfold over the past century. What can’t be disputed, though, is that this phenomenon has unacknowledged ripple effects that reach far beyond the inmates themselves—to their extended families, the wider social fabric, the nation’s history.

Our special “American Incarceration” project documents a few of these troubling consequences. “Exoneration” is a cautionary tale about tragic failures in the criminal justice system. “Suspicion” shows that the impulse to incarcerate an entire racial or ethnic group causes harm that can last generations. “Innocence” reminds us that a prison sentence meted out to a parent—and the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate for women—also, inevitably, affects their children.

From left to right: After 39 years in prison, Ricky Jackson is finally a free man; Japanese Americans head into internment in 1942; a Maryland boy (in red) has an inmate mom. (Credits: Annie Flanagan; MOHAI / Seattle Post-Intelligencer; Marc Isaac)

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