The Generational Damage From the Unequal Incarceration Rates of African Americans

A new study by Youngmin Yi, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, finds that the current racial disparity in incarceration rates is nothing new and impacts African Americans on a generation level. Dr. Yi found that Black adults in the United States are not only more likely to have experienced family incarceration, but are also more likely to have had more family members incarcerated and to have had family members from more generations ever incarcerated.

Using data from a nationally representative survey of U.S. adults, Dr. Yi analyzed Black adults responses on the incarceration rate of siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, and other extended family members. She found that while the average American adult has had 2.5 family members ever incarcerated and 1.1 generations in which a family member has been incarcerated, Black adults have had 5.3 family members incarcerated and 1.7 generations with incarcerated family members.

Overall, 40 percent of American adults have ever had immediate family incarcerated, 34 percent have ever had extended family incarcerated, and more than half of adults have ever had any family incarcerated. Dr. Yi found that for Blacks, 60 percent of adults have experienced an immediate family member’s incarceration, 53 percent have experienced extended family incarceration, and 74 percent have experienced either of those events.

“Much of our knowledge of the reach of the carceral state into family life is focused on incarceration of a parent, romantic partner or child, to the exclusion of other important relationships,” Dr. Yi states. “The focus to date on immediate family and prevalence in the study of mass incarceration may therefore yield an incomplete understanding of the impacts of this policy regime, potentially underestimating racial inequalities in the reach and consequences of family incarceration.”

The full study, “Racial Inequality in the Prevalence, Degree, Extension, and Permeation of Incarceration in Family Life,” was published on the website of the journal Demography. It may be accessed here.

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