Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 May 2015
In just the last forty years, imprisonment has been transformed from an event experienced by only the most marginalized to a common stage in the life course of American men—especially Black men with low levels of educational attainment. Although much research considers the causes of the prison boom and how the massive uptick in imprisonment has shaped crime rates and the life course of the men who experience imprisonment, in recent years, researchers have gained a keen interest in the spillover effects of mass imprisonment on families, children, and neighborhoods. Unfortunately, although this new wave of research documents the generally harmful effects of having a family member or loved one incarcerated, it remains unclear how much the prison boom shapes social inequality through these spillover effects because we lack precise estimates of the racial inequality in connectedness—through friends, family, and neighbors—to prisoners. Using the 2006 General Social Survey, we fill this pressing research gap by providing national estimates of connectedness to prisoners—defined in this article as knowing someone who is currently imprisoned, having a family member who is currently imprisoned, having someone you trust who is currently imprisoned, or having someone you know from your neighborhood who is currently imprisoned—for Black and White men and women. Most provocatively, we show that 44% of Black women (and 32% of Black men) but only 12% of White women (and 6% of White men) have a family member imprisoned. This means that about one in four women in the United States currently has a family member in prison. Given these high rates of connectedness to prisoners and the vast racial inequality in them, it is likely that mass imprisonment has fundamentally reshaped inequality not only for the adult men for whom imprisonment has become common, but also for their friends and families.
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