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© Frank


What Mass Incarceration Really Means

by Christopher Wildeman
August 30, 2018

This interview with Christopher Wildeman was conducted and condensed by frank news.

Christopher Wildeman is a Professor of Policy Analysis and Management (PAM) and Sociology (by courtesy) in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, where he is also co-director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN) and associate director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research (BCTR). 

What’s the difference between incarceration and mass incarceration, as you see it?

Incarceration becomes mass incarceration when historically marginalized groups experience incarceration at such high rates that it permeates their entire social and familial existence.

So, when 40% of African-American women say that they have a family member in prison on any given day, when 60% of African-American children whose dads didn't finish high school will experience imprisonment at some point between their birth and their 14th birthday, that's when incarceration becomes mass incarceration, in my mind.

To be totally frank, I think our research on the causes of mass incarceration is pretty weak. And so, when I think about mass incarceration I tend to worry less about what the actual causes of it are, and more about describing it as a social phenomenon. Thinking about contemporary criminal justice policies that we could alter, or dramatically overhaul in an effort to decrease the incarceration rate.

In terms of how incarceration affects families, I think there are two or three really specific things that are important to focus on. The first is that families who experience incarceration were disproportionately dealing with a whole bunch of difficult situations before they experienced a family member's incarceration in the first place. This isn't to say that everybody is, this is just talking about averages, so families that experience incarceration would be more likely to be African-American, more likely to have low levels of family income, relatively lower levels of educational attainment, live in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage.

I think one way you could think about family member incarceration is that it's kind of the straw that broke the camel's back. Families are dealing with a ton of things already that make it hard for the women who will eventually be left behind, make it hard for the children, make it hard for the grandparents. There are a whole host of stressors that folks are already exposed to, and an incarceration essentially piles on, in ways that end up hurting children's outcomes even more.

The place where I think the research is probably most well-established, at this point, is in terms of how mass incarceration affects children, so that's the second thing I'll talk about. At this point, there's a pretty broad consensus in the social scientific community that having a father incarcerated dramatically increases children's behavior and mental health problems in early childhood, that it affects their outcomes in school in ways that are extremely negative for them in the long run, that it increases problematic behaviors in adolescents and early adulthood, and that it eventually increases the risk of criminal justice contact in adulthood, especially for boys.

Research on maternal incarceration is a little bit trickier, but for paternal incarceration, there are very strong signals that it's an event that has really negative effects on children in sort of a host of different domains.

The third thing, and I think this is something that's really important when thinking about kids, especially, is that because parental incarceration is unequally distributed, where kids who are already disadvantaged in a bunch of domains are more likely to experience it than kids who are more advantaged, and because it has these negative effects on children,

mass incarceration has actually pretty substantially increased black-white inequality among children in the United States.

That's the core, empirical finding of my book, Children of the Prison Boom, that my friend Sara Wakefield and I wrote together.

We find that, depending on the outcome you're considering, mass incarceration has increased black-white disparities in child well-being anywhere between about 5-10%, to about 40-50%. It's actually had these really important effects on childhood inequality.

Thinking about family functioning more broadly, and effects on women who are left behind, I actually think that we know a lot less than we should, at this point. There are certainly folks like Megan Comfort that are doing really great research on that, and my collaborator Hedy Lee and I have done some work in that area, too.

There's certainly some research on those types of effects, but there's actually a good bit less research on the women who are left behind. One of her arguments, which she would make better than I would, but I think it's an interesting argument, is it's actually pretty disrespectful toward African-American women how this research literature has developed, where the effects of having a partner or other family member incarcerated on women is treated mostly as it's important because that then affects the children.

So, the effects of paternal incarceration on children are kind of the core thing that research has been interested in, and the effects on women are kind of the mechanism through which paternal incarceration affects kids. I think it's actually a pretty deep argument, but it's hers, not mine.

The thing that we really, really, really don't have a good handle on in terms of the family functioning literature, is how mass incarceration affects family violence, and how it affects family violence both directly and indirectly. I think this is really a core gap in the existing literature.

Why do you think it's missing?

I think the vast majority of folks who are doing research on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration have this idea that the effects have been largely negative on the African-American community. There's not going to be a neat, tidy, socially acceptable answer about how mass incarceration affects family violence. It's going to be complicated, and it's going to be messy.

One of the things that you read in the criminology literature, I'm a weird, interdisciplinary social scientist at this point, but I'm more a criminologist than anything else, and one of the things that you read in the criminology literature is that immediately before folks experience contact with the police, basically, there is actually an increase in criminal activity. Which is not something that, as somebody who works in the collateral consequences area, are talking about as much, but there is this increase. Often it's some combination of untreated addiction, and mental health problems, or labor market shocks, or housing shocks. Perfectly reasonable things, and one of the things that's tricky is that it probably also means that there's some sort of increase in tensions in romantic relations, especially, around that time, because of these external stressors.

It's a complicated story to tell, and nobody's going to feel good about it when it comes out. It's really a gap.

Hedy and I are working on a book on the consequences of mass incarceration for health inequality among women. One of the things that she and I have really been struggling with around intimate partner violence especially, is this idea that it's not going to be a pretty story, nobody on any side of any aisle is going to feel great once it's told, but domestic violence is a huge issue that women, both in the US and throughout the world, face, and so in some ways it feels like we do have this moral obligation to dig in on this issue, even though it's going to be messy.

Once you have that information, what does the research indicate is the best action?

One of the things that's tricky is, with the exception of a very small number of studies, most of which are from policy shocks in other countries, we don't actually have real good facts. Research makes it very hard for us to really seriously tease out whether it would, or exactly how much it would help kids if their parents had ended up getting probation or something, instead of experiencing incarceration. It's a really hard issue.

The thing I increasingly think about in this literature, and this is a broader issue about criminal justice policy, is we need to get really serious about the idea of cutting sentences in half for folks who are convicted of committing acts of violence if we really ever want to substantially change the incarceration rate.

I think this is playing out in most states that have tried to focus exclusively on diversion programs. If you give someone probation, and you don't provide mental health services, and you don't provide addiction services, and you don't provide job training, certainly some folks will not end up in prisons or jails again, but a lot of folks will, because you're not doing anything to help their situation.

Decreasing the number of children who ever experience incarceration seems like it's almost certain to have benefits for child well-being, but I think focusing exclusively on these really low-level offenses is not going to get us anywhere, or not going to get us everywhere we need to go, in terms of criminal justice policy reform.

Taking seriously the idea that someone who commits murder should maybe not have a maximum sentence of over 15 or 20 years is going to dramatically cut the incarceration rate in the United States, and recidivism rates for folks who get out of prison when they're in their 40s and 50s tend to be pretty low. I don't think there's a big public safety risk that comes along with that.

The low-level cycling through the system piece is actually really, really hard. I think what to do there, especially in a society where the services that are available to poor folks are not that good, from a criminal justice policy side is really, really hard to figure out.

Cutting sentences for violent offenses in half strikes me as a pretty easy decision that would require a tremendous amount of information gathering, dissemination of that information, helping elected officials think through programs that they're having to cut because they're spending so much money incarcerating folks who have already done a lot of time, and who have very low risks of recidivism.

But in terms of devising a policy that would really help families, that one seems much more clear cut to me.

No one has brought that up yet.

Yeah, no, I mean unless you talk to Sara Wakefield, nobody will.

What are some of the literal effects on children with incarcerated parents?

The literature is pretty disorganized. Social science doesn't really move in a scientific way. I would say paternal incarceration increases children's risk of mental health and behavioral problems, including physically aggressive behaviors and externalizing behaviors more broadly, school readiness behavioral indicators, which are de facto an extension of external and internalizing behaviors. You even see, as children age, effects on internalizing behaviors as well.

There's this whole mental health and behavioral problems domain, and anybody who studies mental health and behavioral problems in children can tell you that those things are really interesting and important because they're associated with virtually all adolescent and early adulthood outcomes. Which is not to say that they're related there deterministically or anything, but just that there is a strong relationship.

Paternal incarceration significantly increases the risks of physically aggressive behaviors among children, which in turn, especially when combined with the labeling that children experience in schools, increases the sort of serious problems including suspension and delinquency that the children have while they're in middle school and high school, and these things then contribute to this sort of cycle where it increases their risk of arrest, conviction, and even incarceration.

In one study I did where we used Danish registry data, there was this interesting community service experiment, where basically everybody who would have gotten less than 90 days jail time, instead of spending up to 90 days in jail they just had 90 additional days of community service.

What we saw is that 15 years down the road the people who were in the community service experimental group, their sons had a 25% lower risk of experiencing criminal justice contact before their mid-20s. And so, in the little bit of experimental evidence we do have, we see these really strong effects of experiencing incarceration, or having a father experience incarceration, relative to not having them experience that.

How did you find yourself in this area of research, particularly?

To be honest, in terms of my personal biography, it makes a lot of sense because I grew up in a pretty heavily disadvantaged neighborhood, and certainly noticed high levels of criminal justice contact among folks I was growing up with.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in St. Elmo, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I grew up in basically the only racially integrated neighborhood in Chattanooga. I have Googled my ZIP code from growing up, and looked at it during the census years when I was living there as a small child, and realized that it seemed very normal to me, but it was a pretty poor neighborhood.

It was only after the fact that I reflected on that and thought about that. I started graduate school and I wanted to do stuff on childhood inequality. That was always what I'd been interested in, what made me go on to do my Ph.D., and my second year of graduate school my eventual advisor basically was like if you're really interested in childhood inequality, this is something that hasn't been studied at all in a serious way. If you really care about marginalized children, this is the way to go.