Facing lopsided incarceration rates


The English historian Thomas Fuller once wrote, “Let him who expects one class of society to prosper in the highest degree, while the other is in distress, try whether one side of the face can smile while the other is pinched.”

Considering a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics report, this is exactly what American society attempts. While we do not have the express feudal order of Fuller’s time, we nonetheless have a system whereby a vast underclass is held in legal bondage. Recognizing that many in said bondage deserve their predicament, far too many have been haplessly swept into a current from which there is no escape.

According to the BJS report, Jail Inmates at Midyear, 2012 – Statistical Tables, American jails are reversing the three year trend of declining inmate populations. “The number of inmates confined in county and city jails increased by 1.2 percent, from 735,601 at midyear 2011 to 744,524 at midyear 2012,” states the report.

While the overall rate of inmates in local and county jails has remained steady (236 per 100,000 U.S. population), this does not speak well of our nation. We see this when we consider the racial and ethnic distribution of those incarcerated. Males constitute an overwhelming majority of those confined — 87 percent of the jail population at midyear 2012. This isn’t surprising. Sadly, the racial and ethnic distribution isn’t surprising, either.

The BJS observes that whites accounted for 46 percent of inmates, while constituting almost 80 percent of the U.S. total population. Blacks represented 37 percent, while constituting 12.85 percent of the population. Hispanics made up approximately 15 percent of the jail population, while constituting 15.1 percent of the population.

From this we may conclude that only the Hispanic inmate population is roughly in line with its proportion of the total population. Whites are grossly underrepresented, while blacks are almost 200 percent overrepresented.

There is a profound economic feedback effect of this situation. Speaking to John Tierney of the New York Times, Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist who studies this process, said, “Prison has become the new poverty trap. It has become a routine event for poor African-American men and their families, creating an enduring disadvantage at the very bottom of American society.”

Tierney also spoke with Christopher Wildeman, a Yale sociologist, who observes that children are more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. According to Wildeman, Boys left fatherless become more physically aggressive, and spouses of prisoners become more prone to depression and other mental and physical problems.

These proclivities in boys and young men create a cycle both of poverty and imprisonment. In a study co-authored by Western and Wildeman, they note that white men have approximately a 3.3 percent chance of incarceration over their lifetime. Whereas, black men have a 20.7 percent chance.

However, when they compared high school dropouts over seven different age groups (starting with men born in 1945) they found white men had an 8.3 percent chance of going to prison. Whereas, black men of the same age cohorts had a 41.7 percent chance of going to prison.

Not only do these men have vastly increased probabilities of going to prison, their incarceration can have tragic spillover consequences for those they leave behind. In addition to the behavioral impact mentioned above, researchers note increased prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the spouses and partners of men who are incarcerated.

Moreover, they observe that formerly incarcerated men are more likely to be abusive, have higher rates of addiction, and poorer self-control than other fathers.

In view of these realities, we as a nation are obliged to consider Fuller’s admonishment about disparities between classes. While we acknowledge that many of those in prisoned need to be there, our country has failed to provide them with the necessary tools to be stable and productive once they’re released.

We have also failed to recognize that the men themselves aren’t the only ones “imprisoned” while they’re in jail.