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Punishment and Inequality in America

Bruce Western

Publication Year: 2006

Over the last thirty years, the prison population in the United States has increased more than sevenfold to over 2 million people, including vastly disproportionate numbers of minorities and people with little education. For some racial and educational groups, incarceration has become a depressingly regular experience, and prison culture and influence pervade their communities. Almost 60 percent of black male high school drop-outs in their early thirties have spent time in prison. In Punishment and Inequality in America, sociologist Bruce Western explores the recent era of mass incarceration and the serious social and economic consequences it has wrought. Punishment and Inequality in America dispels many of the myths about the relationships among crime, imprisonment, and inequality. While many people support the increase in incarceration because of recent reductions in crime, Western shows that the decrease in crime rates in the 1990s was mostly fueled by growth in city police forces and the pacification of the drug trade. Getting “tough on crime” with longer sentences only explains about 10 percent of the fall in crime, but has come at a significant cost. Punishment and Inequality in America reveals a strong relationship between incarceration and severely dampened economic prospects for former inmates. Western finds that because of their involvement in the penal system, young black men hardly benefited from the economic boom of the 1990s. Those who spent time in prison had much lower wages and employment rates than did similar men without criminal records. The losses from mass incarceration spread to the social sphere as well, leaving one out of ten young black children with a father behind bars by the end of the 1990s, thereby helping perpetuate the damaging cycle of broken families, poverty, and crime. The recent explosion of imprisonment is exacting heavy costs on American society and exacerbating inequality. Whereas college or the military were once the formative institutions in young men’s lives, prison has increasingly usurped that role in many communities. Punishment and Inequality in America profiles how the growth in incarceration came about and the toll it is taking on the social and economic fabric of many American communities.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page

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About the Authors

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pp. xi-xiv

This book reports the main findings of an eight-year project investigating the scope and consequences of growth in the American penal population. Although a vast research literature had studied the evolution of penal . . .

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pp. 1-8

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont were dispatched to America to study the penitentiary, a novel institution generating great discussion among the social reformers of Europe. At that time, two . . .

Part 1. The Scope and Causes of the Prison Boom

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1. Mass Imprisonment

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pp. 11-33

If prisons affected no one except the criminals on the inside, they would matter less. But, after thirty years of penal population growth, the impact of America’s prisons extends far beyond their walls. By zealously punishing . . .

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2. Inequality, Crime, and the Prison Boom

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pp. 34-51

Extraordinary incarceration rates among young, less-educated black men at the end of the 1990s have a seemingly obvious explanation: black youth with little schooling commit a great deal of crime. Indeed, criminologists report . . .

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3. The Politics and Economics of Punitive Criminal Justice

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pp. 52-81

The American penal system is now the largest in the world. For young black men in inner cities, government presents itself mostly as the policeman, the prison guard, or the parole officer. By the end of the 1990s, criminal justice . . .

Part 2. The Consequences of Mass Imprisonment

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p. 83-83

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4. Invisible Inequality

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pp. 85-107

Although numerous, the poor are invisible in America’s affluent society. The everyday hardships of low-income families are unfamiliar to those who are economically comfortable. Poor people are seldom depicted in the popular . . .

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5. The Labor Market After Prison

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pp. 108-130

Through the end of the 1990s, the American labor market was celebrated for its dramatic job growth that contrasted with the stagnant employment figures coming out of western Europe. For young men at the bottom of the labor market, this triumphalism . . .

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6. Incarceration, Marriage, and Family Life

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pp. 131-167

As imprisonment became common for less-educated black men by the end of the 1990s, the penal system became familiar to their families. By 1999, 30 percent of noncollege black men in their mid-thirties had been to prison and . . .

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7. Did the Prison Boom Cause the Crime Drop?

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pp. 168-188

Prisons conceal and deepen social inequality. Hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged jobless men are excluded from the usual measures of poverty and unemployment. Men who have been incarcerated make less money, see more . . .

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pp. 189-198

In the last decades of the twentieth century, mass imprisonment became a fact of American life. The deep involvement of poor black men in the criminal justice system became normal. Those drawn into the net of the penal . . .


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pp. 199-212


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pp. 213-233


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pp. 235-247

E-ISBN-13: 9781610445559
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871548948
Print-ISBN-10: 0871548941

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2006

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Criminal justice, Administration of -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Imprisonment -- Social aspects -- United States.
  • Criminal justice, Administration of -- Economic aspects -- United States.
  • Imprisonment -- Economic aspects -- United States
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