UW Today

June 11, 2015

Nearly half of African-American women know someone in prison

News and Information

African-American adults — particularly women — are much more likely to know or be related to someone behind bars than whites, according to the first national estimates of Americans’ ties to prisoners.

The research, led by Hedwig Lee, University of Washington associate professor of sociology, reveals the racial inequality wrought by the U.S. prison boom, with potentially harmful consequences to families and communities left lacking social supports for raising children and managing households.

In an article published May 20 in the Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, Lee and co-authors analyzed data from the 2006 General Social Survey, which involved about 4,500 respondents. They studied blacks and whites’ self-reported ties to acquaintances, family members, neighbors or people they trust in state or federal prison.

The data tell a grim story:

  • 44 percent of black women and 32 percent of black men have a family member in prison, compared to 12 percent of white women and 6 percent of white men.
  • Black women are far more likely to have an acquaintance (35 percent vs. 15 percent), family member (44 percent vs. 12 percent), neighbor (22 percent vs. 4 percent), or someone they trust (17 percent vs. 5 percent) in prison than are white women.

The authors note that while research has considered the cause of the “prison boom” and its effect on crime rates and on those imprisoned, the “spillover effects” of that imprisonment trend have been elusive until now.

“Our results extend previous research on connectedness to show just how pervasive contact with prisoners is for Americans ― especially black women. We make visible a large group of women dealing with the consequences of having a family member in prison. Mass imprisonment has reshaped inequality not only for those in prison, but also for those intimately connected to them.” — Hedwig Lee

Lee said, “Our results extend previous research on connectedness to show just how pervasive contact with prisoners is for Americans ― especially black women. We make visible a large group of women dealing with the consequences of having a family member in prison. Mass imprisonment has reshaped inequality not only for those in prison, but also for those intimately connected to them.”

The researchers write in the paper that it is likely that mass imprisonment has reshaped inequality, not only for the men “for whom imprisonment has become so common,” but also for their families, friends, neighbors and confidants “who bear the stigma of incarceration along with them.”

Co-author Christopher Wildeman of Cornell University said the estimates show deeper racial inequities in connectedness to prisoners than implied by previous work.

“Because imprisonment has negative consequences not only for the men and women who cycle through the system but also for the parents, partners and progeny they leave behind,” Wildeman said. “Mass imprisonment’s long-term consequences of racial inequity in the United States might be even greater than any of us working in this area had originally suspected.”

In the past four decades, the U.S. incarceration rate has soared to the highest in the world. According to recent estimates, the U.S. imprisonment rate is 716 per 100,000 individuals, outpacing repressive nations such as Russia and well beyond other developed countries. Currently, one in every 15 adult black men is behind bars, compared to one in every 106 adult white men.

Lee said for future research along these lines, the team would like to examine how connections to prisons vary not only by race and gender, but also by class.

Other co-authors are Tyler McCormick, a UW professor of statistics and of sociology, and Margaret Hicken at the University of Michigan. The study was unfunded.

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Adapted from a release by Ted Boscia of Cornell University. For more information, contact Lee at 206-543-4572 or hedylee@uw.edu.

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