After Prison: The Effects of Mass Incarceration in the U.S.


A Summary of IPR's June 7 Policy Briefing

Over the past three decades, the U.S. prison population has skyrocketed, with six times as many people in prison today as in 1972. More than 600,000 prisoners will be released this year alone. The effects of this massive prison population stretch to the very foundations of our society and communities. In a June 7 briefing, four IPR faculty fellows presented their latest research findings about the destabilizing effects of prisoner reentry to a crowd of more than 75 policymakers, community activists, foundation representatives, and journalists.

Moderator Mary Pattillo, co-editor of the recently released Imprisoning America: The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration (Russell Sage Foundation Press, 2004), addressed how the entire social fabric of our nation's communities is affected by the increasing numbers of the incarcerated—severed family relationships, the lack of job opportunities for ex-felons, and the inability of many ex-felons to vote. She also touched on the underlying racism, which defines how many African American ex-felons are treated once they are released and severely hampers their reintegration efforts. Pattillo is an IPR faculty fellow and associate professor of sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University.

Devah Pager detailed her study, in which she sent matched pairs of young black and white men to apply for entry-level job openings throughout Milwaukee to assess the effects of race and criminal record on hiring outcomes. One of the most striking findings was that employers were more likely to call back whites with criminal records for interviews than black applicants with no criminal history. Her results were published in the American Journal of Sociology (pdf), 2003, 108(5): 937-975. Pager is an IPR faculty fellow and assistant professor of sociology at Northwestern University. She is currently at work on The Mark of a Criminal Record (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming).

Kathryn Edin took up the subject of how incarceration affects families, in particular father-child relationships and romantic relationships. In several studies consisting of one-on-one interviews with members of 300 families, Edin and her colleagues have found that 40 percent of the new (unmarried) fathers who have just had a child already have a criminal record. And if they are sent back to prison, the incarceration almost always severs relationships with their current partners and can profoundly destabilize their relationships with their children. Edin is an IPR faculty fellow and associate professor of sociology at Northwestern. She is co-author of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (University of California Press, forthcoming 2004).

Jeff Manza discussed how many ex-inmates are denied basic civil liberties once they have served their time, in particular the right to vote. States regulate these rights, so voting regimes for ex-felons vary across the nation from very liberal (Maine and Vermont) to very strict (Alabama, Florida, and Nevada). These restrictions exist despite public opinion data showing that a majority of Americans favor giving ex-felons the right to vote, no matter how heinous the crime. In 2000, more than 4.7 million felons—or 2.3 percent of the voting population—were disenfranchised. Historically, Manza estimated that if disenfranchised felons had been allowed to vote, they could have profoundly affected several hotly contested elections since 1972—mainly to the Democrats' benefit. In a paper written with Christopher Uggen, "Punishment and Democracy: The Disenfranchisement Of Nonincarcerated Felons In The United States" (pdf) he gives a broad overview of the question. Manza is IPR's associate director and a faculty fellow and associate professor of sociology at Northwestern University. He is working on a book, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

View presentation slides PDF icon (pdf)

More information

"A Portrait of Prisoner Reentry in Illinois" (pdf) by Nancy G. La Vigne, Cynthia A. Mamalian, with Jeremy Travis and Christy Visher. The Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center. 2003.

"After Prison: Roadblocks to Reentry." A Report on State Legal Barriers Facing People with Criminal Records. Legal Action Center. 2004.