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Imprisoning America

The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration

Mary Pattillo, Bruce Western, David Weiman

Publication Year: 2004

Over the last thirty years, the U.S. penal population increased from around 300,000 to more than two million, with more than half a million prisoners returning to their home communities each year. What are the social costs to the communities from which this vast incarcerated population comes? And what happens to these communities when former prisoners return as free men and women in need of social and economic support? In Imprisoning America, an interdisciplinary group of leading researchers in economics, criminal justice, psychology, sociology, and social work goes beyond a narrow focus on crime to examine the connections between incarceration and family formation, labor markets, political participation, and community well-being. The book opens with a consideration of the impact of incarceration on families. Using a national survey of young parents, Bruce Western and colleagues show the enduring corrosive effects of incarceration on marriage and cohabitation, even after a prison sentence has been served. Kathryn Edin, Timothy Nelson, and Rechelle Parnal use in-depth life histories of low-income men in Philadelphia and Charleston, to study how incarceration not only damages but sometimes strengthens relations between fathers and their children. Imprisoning America then turns to how mass incarceration affects local communities and society at large. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza use survey data and interviews with thirty former felons to explore the political ramifications of disenfranchising inmates and former felons. Harry Holzer, Stephen Raphael, and Michael Stoll examine how poor labor market opportunities for former prisoners are shaped by employers’ (sometimes unreliable) background checks. Jeremy Travis concludes that corrections policy must extend beyond incarceration to help former prisoners reconnect with their families, communities, and the labor market. He recommends greater collaboration between prison officials and officials in child and family welfare services, educational and job training programs, and mental and public health agencies. Imprisoning America vividly illustrates that the experience of incarceration itself—and not just the criminal involvement of inmates—negatively affects diverse aspects of social membership. By contributing to the social exclusion of an already marginalized population, mass incarceration may actually increase crime rates, and threaten the public safety it was designed to secure. A rigorous portrayal of the pitfalls of getting tough on crime, Imprisoning America highlights the pressing need for new policies to support ex-prisoners and the families and communities to which they return.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

TItle Page, Copyright

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pp. ix-x

This volume grew out of the 2001 conference “The Effects of Incarceration on Children and Families,” hosted by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University. The conference brought together academics, practitioners, and activists to share empirical research, theories, and testimonies on the impact of mass incarceration in the United States. Although only some of the papers...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-18

The family life of the poor has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Since 1970, rates of divorce have increased by about one-third (U.S. Department of Commerce 2001, 87) and rates of nonmarital childbearing have roughly doubled (McLanahan and Casper 1995, 11). Consequently, the proportion of single parents in the population increased...

PART I: Families

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pp. 19-20

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2. Incarceration and the Bonds Between Parents

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pp. 21-45

The family life of the poor has changed dramatically over the past thirty years. Since 1970, rates of divorce have increased by about one-third (U.S. Department of Commerce 2001, 87) and rates of nonmarital childbearing have roughly doubled (McLanahan and Casper 1995, 11). Consequently, the proportion of single parents in the population increased substantially. Among white women aged twenty-five...

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3. Fatherhood and Incarceration as Potential Turning Points in the Criminal Careers of Unskilled Men

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pp. 46-75

Over the past thirty years, three interrelated trends have profoundly affected the lives of low-income men. First, wages for low-skilled men employed full-time and full-year have declined sharply, as has the proportion of men who do work full-time and full-year. The drop has been substantial for African Americans and Latinos, but especially dramatic for unskilled whites (Bound and Johnson 1992; Katz and Murphy 1992; Lerman 1993), a trend that continued even through...

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4. Returning to Strangers: Newly Paroled Young Fathers and Their Children

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pp. 76-96

In recent years, academics have begun to focus more attention on the effects of our nation’s high rate of incarceration. One area of concern has been the impact of prison on inmate parents and the other parent of their children (see chapters 2 and 3 in this volume). In general, research and policy efforts have been directed toward adult inmates; little thought has been given to their juvenile counterparts. This lack of attention is surprising in light of estimates suggesting that a large...

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5. Children of Incarcerated Parents: Multiple Risks and Children’s Living Arrangements

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pp. 97-132

State and federal inmates were parents to more than 1.3 million children in 1997, a near tripling of the 1986 figure (Johnson and Waldfogel 2002). This dramatic increase in the number of parents in prison has prompted concern about the well-being of children whose parents are incarcerated. But parental incarceration is only one of many factors that may influence how these children are faring...

PART II: Communities

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pp. 133-134

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6. Effects of Incarceration on Informal Social Control in Communities

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pp. 135-164

Over the past twenty years, the United States has experienced a massive increase in imprisonment (Lynch and Sabol 1997; Blumstein and Beck 1999). From 1980 and 2002, U.S. prison populations increased from about 330,000 persons (Gilliard and Beck 1996) to more than 2 million (Harrison and Beck 2003). The estimated number of persons who had ever been incarcerated in state or federal prisons increased...

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7. Lost Voices: The Civic and Political Views of Disenfranchised Felons

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pp. 165-204

Incarceration affects many aspects of community life, from demographic composition to public safety. In addition, it silences the political voices of millions of disenfranchised felons and dilutes the political strength of the groups to which they belong...

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8. Will Employers Hire Former Offenders?: Employer Preferences, Background Checks, and Their Determinants

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pp. 205-244

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that, at current incarceration rates, approximately 9 percent of all men residing in the United States will serve some time in state or federal prisons. For certain subgroups of the population, the proportion likely to serve time is quite large. For example, according to these estimates, nearly 30 percent of African American men and 16 percent of Hispanic...


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pp. 245-246

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9. Reentry and Reintegration: New Perspectives on the Challenges of Mass Incarceration

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pp. 247-268

The steady growth of imprisonment in America over the past generation has created an unprecedented social and policy challenge: the reintegration of large numbers of individuals who have spent time in America’s prisons. This challenge has been largely overlooked amid the intense political and philosophical debates over our sentencing policies that have accompanied the inexorable rise in the rate of imprisonment in this country...


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pp. 269-270

E-ISBN-13: 9781610446761
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871546524
Print-ISBN-10: 0871546523

Page Count: 288
Publication Year: 2004

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

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