African-American adults, particularly women, are much more likely to know or be related to someone in prison than whites, according to a new study published in the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race.
The researchers investigated the racial inequality connected to the U.S. prison boom and its potentially harmful consequences to families and communities who are left with little social support for raising children and managing households.
In the last four decades, the incarceration rate in the U.S. has soared to the highest in the world. According to recent data, the U.S. imprisonment rate is 716 per 100,000 individuals, even surpassing repressive nations such as Russia and well beyond other developed countries.
Currently, one in every 15 adult black men is behind bars, compared to one in every 106 adult white men.
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the 2006 General Social Survey, which involved about 4,500 participants. They studied blacks’ and whites’ self-reported ties to acquaintances, family members, neighbors, or people they trust who are in state or federal prison.
The findings showed that 44 percent of black women and 32 percent of black men have a family member in prison, compared to 12 percent of white women and six percent of white men.
They also found that black women are far more likely to have an acquaintance (35 percent vs. 15 percent), family member (44 percent vs. 12 percent), neighbor (22 percent vs. four percent), or someone they trust (17 percent vs. five percent) in prison than are white women.
The authors note that while research has focused on the cause of the “prison boom” and its effect on crime rates and on those imprisoned, the spillover effects of that imprisonment trend have remained largely unknown.
“Our results extend previous research on connectedness to show just how pervasive contact with prisoners is for Americans, especially black women,” said lead researcher Dr. Hedwig Lee, University of Washington associate professor of sociology.
“We make visible a large group of women dealing with the consequences of having a family member in prison. Mass imprisonment has reshaped inequality not only for those in prison, but also for those intimately connected to them.”
The researchers add that it is likely that mass imprisonment has reshaped inequality, not only for the men “for whom imprisonment has become so common,” but also for their families, friends, neighbors, and confidants “who bear the stigma of incarceration along with them.”
Co-author Dr. Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University said the estimates show deeper racial inequities in connectedness to prisoners than implied by previous work.
“Because imprisonment has negative consequences not only for the men and women who cycle through the system but also for the parents, partners, and progeny they leave behind,” Wildeman said.
“Mass imprisonment’s long-term consequences of racial inequity in the United States might be even greater than any of us working in this area had originally suspected.”
In future research, the team would like to examine how connections to prisons vary not only by race and gender, but also by class.
Source: University of Washington