Half of Americans Have Family Members Who Have Been Incarcerated


A first-of-its-kind study released on Thursday shows that about 113 million American adults have an immediate family member who is formerly or currently incarcerated.

FWD.us, a criminal justice and immigration reform advocacy group, and Cornell University surveyed a representative sample of more than 4000 people. The resulting report shows that one in seven adults has had an immediate family member incarcerated for more than one year, and one in 34 has had a loved one incarcerated for 10 years or more.

One in four American adults has had a sibling incarcerated. One in five has had a parent sent to jail or prison. One in eight has had a child incarcerated.

Today, 6.5 million adults have an immediate family member currently in jail or prison.

Researchers found that rates of family incarceration were disproportionately higher for communities of color and low-income families.

Black people are 50 percent more likely than white people to have a family member who is formerly or currently incarcerated, and three times more likely to have a family member who has spent at least 10 years in prison. The survey found that six of 10 African Americans and Native Americans have an immediate family member who has been in jail or prison.

FWD.us also reports that family incarceration is more concentrated in poor communities; the proportion of people who have had an immediate family member incarcerated increases as income declines.

Adults with household incomes of less than $25,000 per year are 61 percent more likely than adults with household incomes of more than $100,000 to have had a family member incarcerated, and three times more likely to have had a family member incarcerated for one year or longer.

The seven states with the highest incarceration rates are all in the South. Forty-nine percent of adults living in the South and West have had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one night in jail or prison, compared to the national average of 45 percent. The report says people living in the South or West are almost 60 percent more likely to experience family incarceration than those living in the Northeast.

“These new findings bring to light the staggering scale of the United States’ incarceration crisis, as nearly 1 in 2 American adults has an immediate family member who is currently or has previously spent time behind bars,” said Todd Schulte, President of FWD.us. “This research corroborates what too many families have known for too long: our current criminal justice system is harming our economy, communities, and families and undermining the promise of what America can and should be.”

Incarceration not only costs families precious time together, but also imposes direct and indirect financial costs on families, including bail, court fees, and fines. Families are often charged excessive fees to speak to their incarcerated loved ones by phone, and visiting people incarcerated far from home can be prohibitively expensive. Fewer than one out of four people with an incarcerated family member was ever able to visit their loved one, FWD.us reports.

Families of incarcerated people must also replace lost income, child support, and other financial contributions. Nearly two in three families (65 percent) were found in a separate study cited by FWD.us to be unable to meet basic needs such as food, housing, and medical care while their family member was incarcerated. Indeed, 54 percent of the parents who are incarcerated were the primary breadwinners in their families, and three-quarters were employed in the month prior to their arrest.

Losing their primary source of income can push families into financial disaster, and the destabilizing and traumatic effects of incarceration on family members is magnified the longer their loved one is incarcerated. Having an incarcerated family member has been shown to increase the risk of depression, hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.

Further, these costs continue to mount after incarceration. It can be difficult to find employment after incarceration, and many formerly incarcerated people must pay restitution, supervision fees, and other costs to comply with parole conditions. As of 2011, FWD.us reports, the total amount of criminal justice debt owed by Americans amounted to around $50 billion.

Families often forgo basic necessities to pay fees because the failure to pay can lead to their loved one being returned to jail or prison. FWD.us cites a study finding that 63 percent of respondents said family members were primarily responsible for covering conviction-related costs; almost half of those family members were mothers, and one in 10 were grandmothers.

Despite recent limited declines in incarceration, FWD.us reports that jail and prison populations in the United States are four times larger today than in 1980, with more than 1.5 million people in state or federal prisons on any given day. Admissions to local jails have exceeded 10 million annually for the past two decades.

The United States continues to incarcerate more people than any other country in the world, spending $273 billion each year on police, courts, and corrections, FWD.us says. Researchers estimate the economy loses $87 billion annually in GDP due to mass incarceration.

Felicity Rose, a criminal justice researcher at FWD.us whose father was incarcerated, said the report is intended to demonstrate the broad impact of incarceration and make it easier for people to talk about. “This isn’t just a few people, this is millions of people, but yet there’s so much shame and stigma attached to this issue, so much so that people just don’t talk about it,” she said. “There is a silent suffering around the country, but people need to know they’re not alone.”