Upsetting Research Shows Nearly Half Of Americans Have A Family Member Who's Been Imprisoned

Photo: Alexander Aksakov, Getty Images

The United States puts more people in prison than any other country in the world, yet little is known about the ways this sad reality impacts the immediate family members of those who are incarcerated. An alarming new study is revealing the extent of the issue, showing that 45 per cent of all Americans have had a close family member sent to jail at some point.

A new study published this week in the science journal Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World opens with a rather straightforward query:

What percentage of Americans have ever had a family member incarcerated?

It’s a valid question, given that over 2 million Americans are in jail at any given point in time — around 714 per every 100,000 U.S. residents. The new research, led by sociologist Peter Enns from Cornell University, was an effort to quantify this mass incarceration rate in terms of the immediate family members involved, namely fathers, mothers, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children.

Results of the study — considered the most thorough of its kind to date — shows that 45 per cent of U.S. residents have had a close family member jailed or imprisoned for one night or more. This figure increases for African-Americans and individuals with lower levels of education.

These statistics were pulled from an extensive survey involving over 4,000 people, and the results came as a surprise even to the researchers who predicted figures at “half that rate,” according to a press release. Consequently, the effects of mass incarceration on American families, as this new research suggests, are largely unknown and under-appreciated.

For the study, Enns and his colleagues devised a questionnaire they called the Family History of Incarceration Survey (FamHIS), which was administered during the summer of 2018. A central focus of the survey was to include as wide a cross section of people as possible, making issues of accessibility, inclusivity, and a willingness to participate in the survey a major priority. The researchers also made sure Americans who often get excluded from similar surveys were not forgotten; to that end, a field staff was used to conduct in-person recruitment, and they reached out to young adults, Spanish-speaking individuals, people of lower socioeconomic status, households without internet, and other hard-to-reach households. Also, all respondents were assured their answers would remain confidential.

The authors claim their new study is the most thorough investigation of this issue to date, saying previous approaches made it “impossible” for sociologists to estimate the rate of family member incarceration, as Christopher Wildeman, a professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and a co-author of the study, told Gizmodo.

“We think that much of this lag in focus on the criminal justice system is driven by the fact that it has historically been considered and is still sometimes considered something unusual,” said Wildeman. “Using a nationally representative survey and questions designed specifically to gauge the level of family member incarceration, we were able to show definitively that family member incarceration is quite common. So the survey mechanism was not unique for generating these sorts of estimates, but the questions themselves.”

Over 4,000 people completed an initial screener survey asking if a family member had ever been incarcerated (a family member being a spouse, partner, co-parent, biological, step, or adoptive parent, sibling, or child). Those who answered yes were then asked to complete a second, more detailed, survey.

Overall, 45 per cent of U.S. residents surveyed said they have had an immediate family member put in jail or incarcerated. Among African Americans, this figure was considerably higher and closer to 63 per cent. For Hispanics it was 48 per cent and for whites it was 42 per cent. Around 60 per cent of individuals who didn’t compete high school had an immediate family member incarcerated, regardless of ethnicity. Siblings were the most common type of family member to be incarcerated, an unexpected result that will require further research.

Among college-educated whites, family incarceration was just slightly above 15 per cent. As the level of education increased, however, the chance of a white person having a family member incarcerated decreased. Such was not the case for African Americans, for whom the chances remained the same regardless of their level of education. Around 70 per cent of African Americans who didn’t complete high school had a family member incarcerated, a figure that crept up marginally to 71 per cent for African Americans who had finished high school.

“We are very confident in the data,” said Wildeman, “We used a top survey firm — NORC at the University of Chicago—a well-regarded nationally representative sample, and got advice on the survey from a broad range of criminal justice experts and polling experts.”

The only limitation worth mentioning, he said, was that the survey did not include individuals who are currently in prison or jail.

In terms of where to go next, Wildeman and his colleagues would like to figure out how incarceration affects family members.

“We have some additional questions in the dataset — on health, feelings about the criminal justice system, and political involvement, to name a few domains—that will provide some preliminary evidence,” he said. “But we really do need to get out and figure out just how this affects family members.”

Absolutely. If the over-zealous penal system in the United States insists on putting so many people in jail—particularly people of colour and individuals in the lower socioeconomic classes—it also needs to acknowledge and consider the costs this places onto American families.

[Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World]

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