Tag Archives: prison

How many prisoners grew up with both parents?

A couple clarifications.

In her commentary on my commentary, Kay Hymowitz offered some evidence that single parenthood causes crime (or at least incarceration). She wrote:

Regardless, there is no disagreement that the majority, and perhaps the large majority, of inmates grew up in fatherless homes. It’s difficult to get up-to-date data since the Bureau of Justice doesn’t reliably track the family background of inmates. (They also put intact and step families in the same “two parent” category, though at least one study has found the later to be predictive of juvenile incarceration.) The 1987 “Survey of Youth in Custody” found that 70% did not grow up with both parents. Another 1994 study of Wisconsin juveniles was even more stark: only 13% grew up with their married parents. Here’s the conclusion of Cynthia Harper and Sara McLanahan, the doyenne of researchers about single parenthood: “[C]ontrolling for income and all other factors, youths in father-absent families (mother only, mother-stepfather, and relatives/other) still had significantly higher odds of incarceration than those from mother-father families.”

You can follow the links to see her sources, except the Harper and McLanahan link, which is dead. Shockingly, Brad Wilcox also provided a dead link to the same quote. I was curious to see it because I would be surprised if any social scientist used the words “controlling for … all other factors.”

Anyway, for some reason Hymowitz missed the large, national study the Bureau of Justice Statistics does on inmates, which includes family background information, repeated since 1991. If you look at their report on the 2004 survey (which focused on drug issues), and make a few simple calculations, you can figure out that 55% of state and federal prisoners did not “live most of the time while growing up” with both parents. They don’t count “fatherless homes” separately, but even assuming most of the those 55% were living with their mothers, “large majority” is a stretch.

But what does that tell us anyway? The survey also shows these folks have experienced high rates of poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, physical abuse, and family members’ incarceration. If only 55% of this population is from non-married-parents homes, that’s not a very strong case for an independent effect of family structure.

As importantly, the 2004 survey shows that 74% of state and federal inmates had previously been sentenced to prison or probation. By Hymowitz’s logic, maybe the biggest cause of crime is incarceration. This is not crazy at all, of course, it’s just not the point she wants to make.

People who think incarceration reduces crime often don’t appreciate how many people get out of prison — like Elizabeth Marquardt, who described the policy as, “lock up a lot more of those fatherless boys and throw away the key.” But BJS statistics show that 44% of inmates were released in 2010 (roughly 700,000 out, 700,000 in).

In case you have lost the thread, I think Hymowitz and the others that are so exercised by my little post are trying to protect this narrative: Marriage decline substantially caused the increase in crime in the 1980s and 1990s, and then continued to apply this upward pressure while incarceration was so effective that crime rates fell anyway. I don’t buy it on either end.


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Incarceration’s contribution to infant mortality

A recent study in the journal Social Problems by sociologist Chistopher Wildeman shows that America’s practice of mass incarceration may be exacerbating both infant mortality in general and stubborn racial inequality in infant mortality in particular.

Drawing on recent literature by himself and others, Wildeman spells out the case for incarceration’s negative effect on family economies, including: lost earnings and financial contributions from fathers, the expensive burden of maintaining the relationship with an incarcerated parent, and the lost value of the incarcerated parent’s unpaid labor. All of those costs may take a toll on mothers’ health, which is the primary cause of infant mortality.

In addition, family members of incarcerated parents may contract infectious diseases, experience significant stress, and lose support networks — all taking an additional health toll.

Sure enough, his analysis of data from the Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System confirms that children born into families in which a parent has been incarcerated are more likely to die in the first year of life. The association may not be causal, but it holds with a lot of important control variables.

Does this increase racial inequality? Probably, because parental incarceration is so concentrated among Black families, as Wildeman and Bruce Western reported previously (my graph of their numbers):

To make the connection to racial inequality explicit, Wildeman moves to compare states over time, on the suspicion that incarceration could increase infant mortality rates, and racial inequality in infant mortality rates. That could be because concentrated incarceration undermines community support and income, people with felony records often are disenfranchised (so the political system can ignore their needs), and the costs of incarceration crowd out more beneficial spending that could improve community health.

The results of a lot of fancy statistical models comparing states show that:

the imprisonment rate is positively and significantly associated with the total infant mortality rate, the black infant mortality rate, and the black-white gap in the infant mortality rate.

It’s an impressive article on an important subject, one that thankfully is attracting more attention from good scholars.

I previously reported on Wildeman’s work on how the drug war affect families, here.


Filed under Research reports

Unfreedom update: 2010 incarceration stats

I can’t teach my course on family sociology without these graphs, which show the rise of the unfree population, and the incredible race/ethnic and gender disparities behind them.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released Correctional Population in the United States, 2010, which updates my standard figures. First, the total trend toward unfreedom in the population — from less than 2 million in 1980 to more than 7 million 30 years later:

And second, to understand the disparate impact of this change on Black men in young adulthood primarily — and secondarily, Latino men — here are the rates of incarceration for men by age and race/ethnicity (Blacks here exclude Latinos; Asians and American Indians are not included in the statistics):

Just to make sure you read the scale right, that incarceration rate for Black men in their early 30s is 9,892 per 100,000, or 9.9%, or one-in-ten — more than five-times the rate for White men.

I come at this largely from its effects on families. In a nutshell: The overall trend is largely a consequence of how the U.S. has waged its drug war over this period; these policies fit into a web of practices that deny families to millions of people in the U.S. (only a minority of whom have been convicted of crimes), including by simply removing men from communities and increasing the number of single-parent families.

All that said, you may notice the little decline at the end of that long upward trend in the first figure. In fact, for the first time since 1980, there has been a decline in the incarcerated population for two years running. There has been a long-term decline in crime, but I don’t know whether that is more important than the budget crises facing so many states, or the diminished lust for locking people up. In New York, for example, seven incarceration facilities were closed in the last year, after the number of prisoners dropped about one-fifth in the past decade:

The inmate decline followed a 25 percent statewide drop in crime over the past decade and revisions in sentencing laws that allowed earlier releases and alternative programs for nonviolent drug offenders. The number of prisoners in medium-security prisons declined almost 20 percent from 2001 to 2010 while those in minimum-security facilities dropped 57 percent.

The numbers on the charts are still off the charts, meanwhile — and remember these are just those in the system now. Many more people (and their families) live lives permanently hampered by criminal records and the experience of imprisonment.


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No family for you

Images from a week in the world of family denial.

It’s been a big week for stories of families denied by state authority. Family denial came up in the form of bodily intervention (as in North Carolina’s eugenics program), border control (as when Jose Antonio Vargas‘s mother put him on a one-way plane for the U.S.), parents’ incarceration, or legal denial of family rights (the refusal to recognize homogamy).

* * *

North Carolina’s eugenics program was the subject of hearings this week, dragging on with no compensation for the living victims. A collection of literature at the State Library of North Carolina includes this 1950 propaganda pamphlet:

* * *

Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, recounted his life as an undocumented immigrant, including this photo of his mother, who put him on a plane for the U.S. with false papers, maybe never to see him again.

* * *

While a judge declared the federal anti-homogamy law unconstitutional, the New York legislature maybe moved toward legal recognition, and President Obama’s “evolution” apparently stalled.

* * *

The 40th anniversary of the drug war was a bleak reminder of the millions of U.S. families separated by incarceration during that time.

The text says, “more women and mothers are behind bars than at any time in U.S. history,” from (www.usprisonculture.com).

My graph from data in an article by Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western in The Future of Children.


Filed under In the news, Politics

Family consequences of the drug war

The drug war @ 40.

Forty years and 40 millions arrest later, some reflections and protests against the policy. In family research, the effects of mass incarceration have gained greater attention in the last 10 years. Because of the concentration of imprisonment by gender, race/ethnicity and age, the family effects are particular to the groups involved. Here’s a graph, then some suggested research:

Source: My graph from Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

Here are three papers that cover different aspect of the issue:

1. Incarceration in Fragile Families, by Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western in The Future of Children.

…the effects of this sea change in the imprisonment rate … have been concentrated among those most likely to form fragile families: poor and minority men with little schooling. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. … Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and so negatively affects them, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may increase future racial and class inequality — and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any benefits of the prison boom. U.S. crime policy has thus, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and reduced the life chances of their children.

2. Paternal Incarceration and Support for Children in Fragile Families, by Amanda Geller, Irwin Garfinkel and Bruce Western, in Demography.

Because most men in jail and prison are fathers, a large number of children may be placed at considerable risk by policies of incarceration. … Both cross-sectional and longitudinal regressions indicate that formerly incarcerated men are less likely to contribute to their families, and those who do contribute provide significantly less. The negative effects of incarceration on fathers’ financial support are due not only to the low earnings of formerly incarcerated men but also to their increased likelihood to live apart from their children. Men contribute far less through child support (formal or informal) than they do when they share their earnings within their household, suggesting that the destabilizing effects of incarceration on family relationships place children at significant economic disadvantage.

3. Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage, by Christopher Wildeman, in Demography.

Results show the following:

  1. 1 in 40 white children born in 1978 and 1 in 25 white children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  2. 1 in 7 black children born in 1978 and 1 in 4 black children born in 1990 had a parent imprisoned;
  3. inequality in the risk of parental imprisonment between white children of college-educated parents and all other children is growing; and
  4. by age 14, 50.5% of black children born in 1990 to high school dropouts had a father imprisoned.


Filed under In the news, Research reports

Sex crimes, incarcerated

The Justice Department has released its latest estimates of sexual victimization among U.S. prisoners. The numbers, and their political context, have been discussed better by others — including those who point out the Administration’s failure to meet its legal obligations to prevent such crimes.

These numbers are extrapolated from a survey of some 80,000 inmates. Despite promises of confidentiality, then, we know there is underreporting (although there may also be overreporting). And these numbers don’t include juveniles.

Among adults, the estimate is about 88,000 prisoners reporting sexual victimization in the last year, in the 2008-9 survey — which includes non-consensual sex and assault by other prisoners, as well as any sexual contact with staff. (Since prisoners could report more than one category of victimization, the numbers add up to more then 88,000.)

Source: My graph from the report.

It’s morally offensive to dwell on the cost aspects of this situation, since the state that countenances such crimes against its prison population is as culpable as the individuals who carry them out. However absurdly, though, the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act required the government to study this problem and take steps to prevent it — but also required that it do so at no substantial cost. Even so, as David Kaiser and Lovisa Stannow argue, taking into account the true costs of the damage caused by these crimes, even a large investment to end the problem could be justified financially.

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When young people can’t say ‘no’

The exact numbers are not the point, but the order of magnitude matters: “about 12 percent of youths held in state-run, privately run, or local facilities reported some type of sexual victimization” in the previous year, according to a new Justice Department study, covered well by the New York Review blog and others.

About 80% of the incidents involved facility staff – the vast majority of whom were women – while the rest involved other youths. In the detention context, any sexual activity with staff is defined as victimization. Other findings included:

  • 10.8% of males and 4.7% of females reported sexual activity with facility staff.
  • 9.1% of females and 2.0% of males reported unwanted sexual activity with other youth.
  • Youth with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual reported significantly higher rates of sexual victimization by another youth (12.5%) compared to heterosexual youth (1.3%).
  • Youth who had experienced any prior sexual assault were more than twice as likely to report sexual victimization in the current facility (24.1%), compared to those with no sexual assault history (10.1%).

A handful of facilities were singled out as having serious problems with reported sexual abuse, including several in North Carolina:

The response from the state in N.C. was sad but not surprising, illustrating the consent/coercion problem for these young people. On the outside, they are often too young to say “yes” to sex, if they wanted to, because of age-of-consent laws. On the inside, where control over their bodies is legally out of their hands, they cannot plausibly say “no” – their status not only as delinquents but as victims of previous sexual assaults makes them unreliable witnesses, giving cover to their abusers:

Anonymous data taken from youths with histories of serious behavioral problems is unreliable, the [N.C.] agency’s response said. Further, there has been a pattern of false claims of sexual abuse among girls at the Samarkand Center, a 36-bed facility for females [where 33% of respondents reported abuse]. … William Lassiter, spokesman for the state juvenile justice department, said the agency routinely conducts its own surveys and that those reports come nowhere close to the level of abuse found in the federal study.

Whom to believe? Justice Department survey used anonymous computer questionnaires completed with no one looking over their respondents’ shoulders. It is carried out under mandate from the Prison Rape Elimination Act.

As Luke Gilman writes (in a post that includes helpful references), “False reporting is bound to be a problem and difficult to determine, but the numbers indicate a problem that can simply no longer be ignored by officials charged with their care.” People often lie about sex, whether it’s consensual or not. But when one side is imprisoning the other, you have to give special weight to the testimony of the weaker party.

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