Nearly Half of All Black Women Know Someone or Are Related to Someone Who is in Prison

Handcuffed Prisoner
Handcuffed Prisoner

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.

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.”

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SOURCE: Peter Kelley
University of Washington

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