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The Effects of Mass Incarceration on Societal Wellbeing

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Has it Always Been This Way?
  3. Family Ties and Stability
  4. Intergenerational Effects
  5. The Cost of Mass Incarceration
  6. Concluding Statements


When people think about childhood in the United States, they often think of their families. Fond memories, as well as a few harsh ones may come to mind. The reality of childhood can include some darker subjects, ideas that seem too adult for a child, but are nonetheless a part of growing up. Some childhoods are bleaker than others though. “It’s kiddie jail,” Anthony said of the group home he stayed in briefly after his mother’s arrest. He was a boy of ten at the time of his interview for Bernstein’s All Alone in the World. “A jail for kids. Actually, it’s not punishment. Actually, they punished me, though … They keep you in cells- little rooms that you sleep in, and you have nothing except for a bed, blankets, and sheets. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. They wouldn’t let you out” (7-8). Anthony’s only crime was being his mother’s son.

As of 2010, one of every twenty-eight children in the United States had an incarcerated parent (Pew Charitable Trusts). At least that many children today have suffered the loss of at least one parent to the criminal justice system. The loss of financial and emotional support, as well as practical care from parents in that many homes is significant in the way it affects harmony in communities and familial stability. Mass incarceration also contributes to patterns of criminality, both in individuals and the communities they leave behind. Furthermore, incarceration costs taxpayers over three times more than it did thirty-five years ago (Kearney et al.) and is significantly more expensive than probation and rehabilitation (McVay et al.). If the citizens of the United States want to see any truly significant changes in rates of criminality and public safety, it is important to consider that familial wellbeing, including child welfare, is at the heart of any truly stable society. Keeping more criminals out of jails and prisons preserves the opportunities of their children and ultimately benefits everyone.

Has it Always Been This Way?

In order to understand why so many children grow up under such stigmatizing and uncertain circumstances, it is important to know the history behind mass incarceration in the United States. Today’s rate of parental incarceration has not always been a fact of life. Before the 1970s, human confinement for long periods of time was considered to be more of a rehabilitative measure than a punitive one. “Life sentences” were not what they are today. Typically sentences were phrased something like “twenty to life,” meaning in twenty years the prisoner’s case would be reviewed. For instance, if after twenty years the prisoner had committed no violent acts within prison or jail and was cooperative with rules and guards, his or her case could be reviewed within the context of said person’s crime and prior criminal record. If the convict in question was considered rehabilitated, he or she was released and did not need to serve the potential life sentence (Bernstein 32).

The 1960s were a decade marked by radical outcry for civil rights and a generation of youth in revolt. The Nixon Administration considered this revolutionary spirit a threat to order and patriotism, attributing the unrest to a drug fueled counterculture. In 1971, Nixon publicly declared a “War on Drugs.” For the first time, drugs like psychedelics and marijuana were placed in the Schedule I category, meaning they were considered highly dangerous and prone to abuse. Due to the changes, selling these drugs could land someone in prison, not just jail for the night. The Reagan Administration escalated the War on Drugs in the 1980s, enacting policies in response to the public’s fear of “crack” cocaine, and the common view among parents that youth culture had become too permissive and prone to experimentation. The “zero tolerance” policies adopted during this time led to a record rate of incarceration for nonviolent drug crimes and reinforced a cultural attitude that favored deterrent strategies over effective education and harm reduction (Drug Policy Alliance).

The final nail in the coffin came about in the 1990s when the Clinton Administration passed the “Three Strikes, You’re Out,” and “Truth in Sentencing” laws. The former was meant to provide prosecutors a means to place habitually violent offenders in prison for life without parole. If a defendant was convicted of a third crime after committing two violent crimes, or a drug crime and a violent crime, a judge was required to enforce the Three Strikes law. The second policy was enacted due to public concern that criminals were not serving enough of their sentences, and that releasing convicts by virtue of their good behavior in prison was a dangerous practice (Chen). These measures have led to an incarcerated population that has nearly consistently remained at over 1.5 million inmates for over a decade (West and Sabol), making it the largest of any nation in the world. Today the population of federal and state prisons combined with territory and county jails is estimated at slightly over 2.3 million, an increase of 800 percent since the 1980s (Wagner and Rabuy). Criminologist Stephen Richards noted, “A successful corrections system doesn’t grow. If they were correcting anybody, they’d shrink” (Bernstein 4). While the corrections system may not be growing at the exponential rate it once was, not enough has been done to reduce the population and reverse the arcane policies that have deprived so many parents of their liberty, and children of their parents.

Family Ties and Stability

The ability of parents to effectively raise their children is significantly impaired when their relationship is impeded or severed for any length of time. Arditti writes in Parental Incarceration and the Family, that the

process of adaptation to the culture of prison society generally implies a loss of agency that has profound implications for parenting (Irwin, 2005) … Imprisoned parents may adapt to the unique features of the prison environment in which parenting becomes largely an internal, symbolic process that may be characterized by a great deal of distress (Arditti et al., 2005; Arditti & Few, 2008). (16)

In itself, this perspective on the child-parent relationship is incomplete, because like most examinations of parental incarceration, it focuses only on the perspective of the parent, and not the point of view of the child. However, Arditti’s discussion of institutionalization begins to paint a picture of the problems faced by families both while a prisoner is incarcerated, and upon their return to society. Convicts learn how to be good prisoners, but nothing about how to be better parents. Upon release, they may feel distressed by the responsibility of parenting, especially if contact with their child has been especially limited or non-existent. This can cause further distress to children, who commonly report missing their parents and a desire to have a relationship with them (Travis and Waul 271).

According to Travis and Waul, caregivers of prisoners’ children are often averse to seeking state financial support. This, they claim, is due to fear of government scrutiny, which may result in the child’s relocation. Seeking child support is generally considered ridiculous as inmates’ primary income comes from family contributions. Instead, prisoners’ families “engage in a process of role change and adaptability simply known as pitching in and helping out” (276). Of course, this burden placed on family members due to prisoners’ apparent or perceived wrong doing frequently foments resentment and animosity. At least 95 percent of prisoners will be released after serving their sentence (Hughes and Wilson), reliant on vital community support at an insecure of their lives. Instead of receiving this support, they are faced by resentful family members and stigmatization by their community.

The effects of this resentment are bolstered by strict child welfare standards that most prisoners do not have the ability to meet. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) was passed for the purpose of ensuring more stable living situations for children. However, this act has caused more uncertainty for children of prisoner’s, whose living situations often do not meet the requirements. Most notably, the law mandates that the process to terminate parental rights must begin if a child has remained in foster care for fifteen of the past twenty-two months. This was over five years shorter than the average prison stay at the time the law was passed (Travis and Waul 268). ASFA implies that children are more likely to thrive under the supervision of the state than the supervision of their formerly convicted parents. However, temporary foster families are typically unable to provide children with the loving attachment that a long term relationship with their biological parents could achieve.

Intergenerational Effects

Critics of prison and child welfare reforms that would allow children more access to their parents might cite that criminality has reduced steadily for the past thirteen years. Property crimes have gone down by 2.6 percent just between 2014 and 2015 (Federal Bureau of Investigation). Proponents for increasing law and order measures would say that dangerous criminals are being kept separate from the public, often including their children, for good reasons. It is important to note, though, that patterns of crime are often intergenerational, and it is impossible to know how the mass incarceration that peaked about ten years ago (West and Sabol) will affect convicts’ children and grandchildren as they age. The assumption of ASFA is that children will be better off for the lack of their parent’s criminal influence, but since passing the law, the government has not assigned anyone to examine the effect of the policy on child welfare and development (Harris et al. 49). Politicians should not be making such crucial decisions without the assistance of experts in child development, sociology, and human services.

Evidence actually suggests that parental incarceration may have negative effects on child development of social skills and that children of incarcerated parents are far less likely to be law abiding. Scholars conclude that children of prisoners are up to six times more likely to commit crimes than their peers (Travis and Waul, 270). Harris, et al. describe the “norms and collective efficacy model” which asserts that “some communities are unable to effectively self-regulate” because of environmental issues such as concentrated poverty and weakened family and community ties. This leads to disorganization and breakdown of social controls (108). Some examples might be a lack of adequate adult supervision, distrust of police for assistance, or general lack of concern regarding laws and normative behavior. Without intervention by programs like the Boys and Girls Club or opportunities within the school system, children often grow up feeling like no one is watching, and no one cares. Unless the government is prepared to spend an infinite amount of resources expanding the overgrown and overcrowded prison and jail facilities, it would behoove them to consider the possible efficacy of programs that rehabilitate criminals while allowing them to remain in their communities, with their children.

Furthermore, it is wrong to disregard the negative mental and emotional effects parental incarceration has on children. Families report feeling significant stigmatization (Travis and Waul 271), and while children may not understand stigma, they can certainly feel it. Children of convicts often experience emotional and mental disturbances that were not present before they learned of their parent’s arrest. Changes most often reported are abandonment, shame, and resentment; disturbances in eating and sleeping; declining grades; and increasingly disruptive behaviors. They may feel as if they their teachers and classmates view them differently because of their parent’s conviction (Harris 49). It only makes sense that these children feel this way when one considers that in 1996, 66 percent of state prisoners were released to “core counties,” usually impoverished urban neighborhoods. This is a 16 percent increase since 1984 (Patillo, et al., 252). Of course these children feel stigmatized. They watch their communities stripped of mothers and fathers due to criminal behaviors, all the while learning that most children grow up free from that grief.

The Cost of Mass Incarceration

If lawmakers and voters remain unmoved by the plight of children and impoverished communities, they might respond to the staggering cost of mass incarceration. According to one study by the Vera Institute of Justice, over 1 in every 100 adults in the United States is incarcerated. According to the Institute, Medicaid is the only budget item in the nation growing faster than spending on corrections (Henrichson and Delaney). As with many aspects of the Criminal Justice System, it is difficult to ascertain the exact dollar figure spent yearly due to fragmentation in the way data is collected. Often only prisons are considered, but not jails or other detention centers. Sometimes only men’s facilities are considered, but not the rapidly growing women’s corrections population. Frequently, only certain aspects of spending are considered, such as improvement spending, but not the cost of arresting, convicting, and housing inmates. In order for the public to begin a discussion on incarceration spending, the Criminal Justice System must strive to create and maintain a more accurate and complete breakdown of spending. By not making this a priority, the government implies that it is unimportant to inform the public how their tax dollars are spent.

Even in their incomplete form, the dollar figures related to incarceration are staggering. The Vera Institute of Justice found that spending in 40 state prisons, accounting for 1.2 million of the 1.4 million state inmates nationwide, was $38,903,304 in 2010. The per inmate annual cost averaged $31,286. Some states spent twice that much per inmate, while others spent less than half the aforementioned figure. The Institute astutely warns readers, “The temptation to compare states’ per-inmate spending should…be avoided, as low per-inmate costs may invite poorer outcomes in terms of safety and recidivism.” The disparity does, however, demonstrate the lack of uniformity in the way prisons report spending and raises concerns about the quality of life in facilities that spend less than $20,000 per year per inmate (Henrichson and Delaney). It is important to remember the increased medical and mental health costs many inmates must incur, diverting funds that could ensure a higher quality of life for the overall population. One must question if a facility spending that little can support a basic standard of living let alone any substantial class offerings, vocational programs, or rehabilitative programs. The opportunities for inmates to better themselves and their social functioning in such facilities seems unlikely. This lack of opportunity will ultimately have an impact not only on the inmate, but on their child and their child’s caregiver. Release from prison is usually only the first step to reunification with children. Successful return to law abiding society, including procuring gainful employment are usually the more difficult steps (Harris et al. 218).

Still, national policy tends to favor punishment and imprisonment over rehabilitation, a strategy that requires somewhat more leniency in order to be effective. The current cultural spirit fears criminals left to roam the streets, but does not focus on what happens when institutionalized criminals with little rehabilitation return to society. Long prison terms without effective rehabilitation does not seem to work well at reducing recidivism. In a 2008 study, two thirds of the former convicts studied were arrested, and over half returned to prison within three years of their release. One third of prisoner admissions that year were due to parole violations (Arditti, 90). Such a punitive system is less effective and far costlier than a rehabilitative one. The Vera Institute of Justice takes note in their report than many states have adopted sentencing reforms that lower their prison populations and costs. This includes allowing community supervision for most first and second time drug offenders and rolling back state truth in sentencing programs, which made it difficult or impossible for prisoners to earn “good time.” (Henrichson and Delaney) Additionally, many states have begun to recognize that treatment can cost half or less than imprisonment annually. In 2004 it cost an average of $20,000 per year to house a prisoner, but only $4,000 to provide a year of community based drug treatment. Washington state found that taxpayers saved about nine dollars for every dollar spent on community based drug treatment (McVay et al.). Because of these programs many offenders are able to remain in their communities. Instead of becoming a drain on taxpayers, they are able to actively participate in the economy. Most importantly, they can remain with their families, providing financial and emotional support while receiving the caring support they need as they learn to be better citizens.

Concluding Statements

Crime reduction and child welfare are two of the most important issues facing the United States, especially as the population continues to grow. Logic would dictate that the government should study the efficacy of the policies and programs it passes into law concerning prisoners and children. Sadly, there exists no branch of government responsible for thorough statistical analysis or case by case studies of the effectiveness of the crime bills and ASFA (Harris, et al., 49). Clearly, the system is not functioning in support of the wellbeing of communities. The policies in place do little to recognize the humanity of prisoners and their families. They do not consider that one’s chances for arrest are often directly related to the color of their skin and the neighborhood where the crime is committed. They do not consider that convicts are not the only ones who bear the punishment of their crimes. Wives, husbands, parents, and children suffer along with them. Prisoners’ families often struggle to maintain the typical responsibilities of life along with the new responsibility of helping a loved one who has been sentenced to time behind bars. Not examining the effects of mass incarceration on families and society can only cause cultural demoralization and complacency. Prisoners remain unseen, and easily forgotten, while society applauds the criminal justice system for taking the “bad people” away.

Not only does the system harm families, but, in truth, it has failed to help anyone or make the nation a more harmonious place to live. In his speech “We Need to Talk About Injustice,” Bryan Stevenson discusses his point of view as a defense attorney. He claims,

…we got carried away with the rhetoric of punishment. And so we have three strikes laws that put people in prison forever for stealing a bicycle, for low-level property crimes, rather than making them give those resources back to the people who they victimized. I believe we need to do more to help people who are victimized by crime, not do less. And I think our current punishment philosophy does nothing for no one.

The current philosophy not only does nothing, but is financially and socially costly. So now, the questions people must ask themselves are difficult ones. What is the purpose of punishing another human being? Does the United States want to promote law and order at all costs? Evidence does not support that mass incarceration has benefited anyone, and it places undue stress on and limits the chances for betterment of the families it targets. A new approach must be considered if the United States truly values liberty and freedom for all, and not just most.

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