Nearly Half of Americans Have a Close Family Member Who Has Been Incarcerated

A new study highlights the sheer scope of mass incarceration in the United States

The rate was double what the team was expecting. welcomia/iStock

When researchers at Cornell University set out to discover how many Americans have a close relative who has spent time in jail or prison, they were shocked to find that the rate clocked in at nearly 45 percent—around double what the team was expecting. Writing in the journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, the researchers say that “having a family member incarcerated is a ubiquitous experience in the United States,” one that reflects the reality of living in a country with unmatched incarceration rates.

As Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky reports, the new study is considered “the most thorough of its kind to date.” The research is based on a nationally representative survey of 4,041 people. Field staff recruited some participants in person, which helped them contact groups that can be otherwise hard to reach, like young adults, people of lower socioeconomic status and people without internet access. Surveys were conducted in English and Spanish.

During an initial screener survey, participants were asked if a close family member—a parent (biological, adoptive or step), spouse, partner, co-parent, sibling or child—had ever spent time in jail or prison. If they responded yes, they were asked to answer a more complete survey that covered such details as how many times the family member had been incarcerated, for how long and whether the participant had visited his or her relative in jail or prison.

Nearly one in two Americans, the researchers found, have experienced the incarceration of a close relative. The rate was particularly high among African Americans, 63 percent of whom have family members who have been in jail or prison. For Hispanics, the rate was 48 percent, and for whites it was 42 percent.

People without a high school degree had the highest cumulative risk—60 percent—of having an incarcerated family member. That risk declined as education level increased, but the results once again showed “the unequal risk of imprisonment” across racial groups, the study authors write. For instance, only five percent of white people with a college degree had a family member who was incarcerated for more than a year, compared to 23 percent of white people who had not graduated high school. Twenty-three percent of African Americans with a college degree, by contrast, had a relative spend at least a year in prison, compared to 46 percent of African Americans with less than a high school degree. In other words, the researchers write, “Blacks with a college degree are just as likely to have a family member imprisoned as whites with less than a high school degree.”

As part of the survey, participants were also asked a host of questions about their experiences with police and the criminal justice system, their health, civic and political engagement, and drug and alcohol use. The researchers hope to delve further into that data later on, and to look more closely at how people are affected by the incarceration of close family members. “Although a substantial body of work has examined how parental incarceration affects children," the study authors write, “our understanding of the effects of having a family member other than a parent or romantic partner incarcerated is limited."

For now, the new research highlights the sheer scope of mass imprisonment in the United States—a troubling phenomenon that impacts a broad spectrum of society, albeit not always evenly.

“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,” says Christopher Wildeman, study co-author and professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell. “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.”

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