With well over two million people currently behind bars, the United States houses nearly 22 percent of the world’s imprisoned population — the highest of any nation on earth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But according to a recent study published by nine Cornell researchers, the effects of mass incarceration are surprisingly far-reaching: nearly half of all Americans have had a family member jailed or imprisoned, a significantly higher figure than earlier estimates.
“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,” study co-author Prof. Christopher Wildeman, policy analysis and management, said in a university press release.
The study administered a survey to a total of 4,041 participants across the country — and found that 45 percent of Americans reported having had at least one child, spouse, parent or sibling spend at least a stint behind bars.
But prevalence of familial incarceration was not evenly spread among groups, according to the research. For both African American demographics and for people with low educational-attainment — those who did not graduate from high school, for instance — almost 60 percent had a member of their immediate family serve time, according to the survey.
Yet even so, well-off and college-educated whites were by no means fully shielded from this phenomenon — one in six share the same experience.
“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 in the press release. “Indeed, this provides further evidence that mass incarceration is a profoundly American phenomenon and something that we as a society must confront together.”
That almost a majority of Americans have lived in a home touched by imprisonment has particularly concerning implications, according to Wildeman, who noted that “the victims of mass incarceration are … the folks who have to manage households and grow up absent a loved one.”
Previous research has found that losing a close family member to jail or prison can “have a major effect on a person and be extremely disruptive,” according to Wildeman. The newly-released research moreover concluded that incarceration damages not just the health and prospects of the individual behind bars, but also those of their family — particularly children.
The study, which was published in the Mar. 4 edition of Socius, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to social science, asked respondents about both major forms of incarceration — jail and prison — while defining the family in broader terms by also including relatives other than parents.
By not taking into account “other types of incarceration and other types of family relationships,” previous research has almost certainly underestimated “the share of people affected by the growth of incarceration since the early 1970s,” according to the study.
The study was sponsored by Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences’ Mass Incarceration Project, an interdisciplinary endeavor that “examines the factors that cause mass imprisonment and the consequences of imprisonment on individuals, families, and society,” according to its website.
The researchers expressed hope that giving a fuller, more comprehensive picture of many Americans’ true relationship with incarceration could reduce stigma — and, in turn, foster a more honest discussion on the causes of the study.
“I hope that it will help folks see that this is more a structural issue than a behavioral one,” Wildeman said in the press release. “And I hope that it would drive home just how much more we can learn when we do the work to get surveys that explicitly focus on crime and criminal justice contact.”