UW Today

This is an archived article.

August 7, 2008

Bulging prison system called massive intervention in American family life

The mammoth increase in the United States’ prison population since the 1970s is having profound demographic consequences that disproportionately affect black males.

“This jump in incarceration rates represents a massive intervention in American families at a time when the federal government was making claims that it was less involved in their lives,” said a UW researcher who presented her findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Drawing data from a variety of sources that looked at prison and general populations, Becky Pettit, a UW associate professor of sociology, and Bryan Sykes, a UW post-doctoral researcher, found that the boom in prison population is hiding lowered rates of fertility and increased rates of involuntary migration to rural areas and morbidity that is marked by a greater exposure to and risk of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV or AIDS.

These effects are most heavily felt by low-skill black males, and she said the disproportionately high incarceration rates among African-Americans suggest the prison system is a key suspect in these demographic results.

Pettit said well-documented facts — one in 100 Americans is behind bars in 2008, about 2.4 million people currently are incarcerated and nearly 60 percent of young black males who dropped out of high school have served time in jail — don’t seem to register with Americans.

“These kinds of rates were not historically true 30 years ago. Today, we are giving people custodial sentences that we wouldn’t have in the past for victimless crimes. Our justice system has become more punitive,” she said, adding that most demographic data collection is decades behind the times and masks this racial disproportionality. That’s because most surveys, which are federally funded, were begun in the 1960s and 70s and excluded the prison population, which was significantly smaller at that time.

In addition, she noted that the effects of an ever-growing criminal justice system extend beyond those who are serving sentences to include children, partners and even entire communities.

Among the findings outlined in Pettit’s presentation are:

 Rates of positive or latent tuberculosis are 50 percent to 100 percent higher for inmates than for the general population. The TB rate among black inmates is 14.6 percent compared to 8.4 percent for white inmates. Despite substantial declines in the overall risk for TB in the U.S., blacks are eight times more likely to contract the disease than whites.

 Blacks both inside and out of prison have higher rates of HIV infection than whites. Inmate rates for HIV are 3.5 percent for blacks and 2.3 percent for whites, although Pettit said this data is weak because many inmates have not been tested for HIV or will not say if they are HIV positive.

 The number of black men living in rural, or non-metropolitan, areas increases dramatically when the inmate population is included because many jails and prisons are located in rural locations.

 Rates of childlessness are higher for both black and white inmates than the general population. Sixty-four percent of non-prison white men have children, but that number drops to 50.6 percent of jailed white men. Among blacks, 71.7 percent of the non-prison men have children while 61.7 percent of those in jail are fathers.

The survey focused on African-Americans and non-Hispanic whites because earlier surveys did not collect data about such groups as Hispanics or Asian-Americans or because the sample sizes from these groups were too small to draw valid statistical judgments. The study also only looked at men between the ages of 25 and 44 and broke them into three groups — high school dropouts, high school graduates and those with a college degree or some college education

Pettit said she hopes her work can be a springboard for better and more inclusive data collection that paints a more accurate demographic picture of the U.S. population.

“We usually don’t think of the prison system as something that is a policy shift. But the public health risks and the effects on migration and fertility show that it has had fundamental consequences for all of us,” she said.

“It is in our own self-interest to be concerned. And certainly from a fiscal standpoint we have an interest. In times of financial difficulty, we have a fixed amount of money and for every dollar we spend on incarceration we have one dollar less to spend on education and other things. This is a challenging public policy question.”