Peter B Wood. 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook. Editor: J Mitchell Miller. Sage Publication. 2009.

In 21st-century America, imprisonment has become a $60 billion per year industry, and will continue to increase in scope in the coming decades. The “prison industrial complex” includes not only those agencies directly involved in delivering punishment (courts, corrections, parole and probation agencies, etc), but also a widening array of vested interests that depend for their political and economic well-being on an ever-increasing supply of inmates. This new constellation of interests includes financial institutions that bankroll and finance construction and management of correctional institutions; political action committees that lobby for new prisons; politicians who run on law-and-order platforms that emphasize punishment for criminal offenders; local development authorities that compete for prisons, believing they will be economic development catalysts for their communities; the many for-profit firms engaged in prison privatization; architectural and construction firms that specialize in large institutions; and a broad range of service providers that seek to secure long-term contracts to provide telecommunications, transport, correctional technologies, food and beverage, clothing, computers, and personal hygiene products to the 2.4 million inmates that currently reside in American prisons and jails.

Beyond the tremendous recent growth in the number of inmates and facilities associated with imprisonment, several developments unique to this new era of punishment deserve notice. But before they are introduced, it is instructive to provide some information about how the scope of imprisonment has changed in the last 30 years.

The Transition from 20th to 21st-Century Imprisonment

For several decades prior to the 1970s, what was most notable was the remarkable stability of the incarceration rate, averaging about 110 per 100,000 (excluding jail populations). While there were minor fluctuations in this period, the rate remained very stable, which led some criminologists to hypothesize a “theory of the stability of punishment,” suggesting that a given society develops a certain culture regarding the level of punishment with which it is comfortable, and then, consciously or not, adjusts its policies and practices to meet this desired outcome. In 1972, federal and state prisons held 196,000 inmates for a prison incarceration rate of 93 per 100,000. In addition, about 130,000 inmates were held in jails, resulting in about 1 out of every 625 adults serving time in jails or prisons.

At the time, this level of imprisonment was viewed as egregiously high among those supporting a moratorium on prison construction, and in 1972, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency passed a policy statement calling for a halt to prison construction in the United States. In 1973, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommended that “no new institutions for adults should be built and existing institutions for juveniles should be closed,” and concluded that “the prison, the reformatory, and the jail have achieved only a shocking record of failure. There is overwhelming evidence that these institutions create crime rather than prevent it” (National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, 1973, p. 1).

Despite these sentiments, a prison expansion unprecedented in human history was about to take place. No one would have predicted that a large-scale imprisonment binge would characterize the next three decades. Many scholars point to the 1974 “Martinson report” (known for finding that “nothing works” to rehabilitate criminals) as signaling the death knell of the rehabilitation ideal in the United States, and since the late 1970s policy and public opinion has shifted toward more certain and severe punishment characterized by longer prison terms for an ever increasing number of offense types.

The imprisonment binge over the past 30 years has resulted in a 700% increase in the U.S. incarceration rate to 762 per 100,000 and approximately 2.3 million in prisons (1.5 million) and jails (800,000) in 2007 (The Sentencing Project). With 1 out of every 100 adults incarcerated, the United States boasts the world’s highest incarceration rate (well ahead of the Russian rate of 635 per 100,000) and accounts for about 25% of the entire world’s imprisoned population. At present, this trend shows no sign of reversing. In addition, nearly 800,000 prisoners per year are now being released from prisons and jails into communities across the United States—the majority of whom will be readmitted within 3 years. The staggering growth in imprisonment in the United States and its scope compared to the past has generated several unique situations and circumstances not previously seen or anticipated. These include but are not limited to prison hosting, coercive mobility and its effects, issues associated with prisoner reentry, a host of “invisible punishments” and their consequences, and the impact of mass imprisonment on minority groups—particularly African Americans.

Prison Hosting in the 21st Century

In the past, prisons have been viewed as undesirable, and communities have traditionally lobbied against the placement of correctional facilities in their midst. Such institutions were regularly a focus of the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and LULU (Locally Unwanted Land Uses) literatures, along with community mental health centers, mental institutions, free health and methadone clinics, homeless shelters, and other agencies or institutions that residents viewed with concern and even fear.

Such concerns have faded as communities now lobby fiercely for the opportunity to host prisons. Particularly for counties and communities that have fallen on hard economic times, a new prison offers the prospect of a new industry, new jobs, and a potential economic catalyst that will spark community growth and development. Most new prisons in the past 20 years have been built in rural communities characterized by high unemployment and low wages, as local development agencies and authorities are lobbied by correctional firms and interests with the promise of higher wages, job opportunities, and so-called “multiplier effects” that are presumed to enhance quality of life for local residents (Wood & Dunaway, 2003).

Over 1,000 new correctional facilities were built in the United States in the last two decades of the 20th century—most in poor rural communities. Between 1980 and 2003, over 350 rural counties built prisons, and some counties boasted several. Nearly 250 prisons opened in 212 of the nation’s 2,290 rural counties in the 10-year period between 1991 and 2001 alone (Beale, 2001). In short, one (or more) prison(s) opened in approximately 10% of all rural counties in the United States in just those 10 years. Currently, nearly 60% of prisoners residing in prisons live in facilities built since 1980 in rural areas, and the average of 25 new rural prisons opening each year in the 1990s (in 1998, a total of 38 new rural prisons opened, the peak year for new rural prisons) is a significant departure from a yearly mean of 16 in the 1980s and 4 in the 1970s.

Correctional facilities are particularly attractive to local legislators and development authorities who seek to “bring home the bacon” to their constituents and hopefully promote economic development in their communities. In addition to the hope that jobs will be created during construction as well as service and supply jobs once the facility is in operation, counties typically charge the state for each inmate/day that a state inmate is housed at the county-level facility. Further, rural counties use minimum-security inmates for municipal and public works. For many rural counties, the majority of municipal and public work is conducted by state inmate road crews. The expense of local municipal services (trash and debris removal, construction work, road maintenance, etc.) is significant, and can be offset by requiring that inmates perform these services as part of their sentence—at no cost to the county. Thus, counties anticipate several payoffs; a new facility may serve as an economic catalyst, counties charge the state to house inmates, and counties use inmates to perform municipal services. In addition to publicly funded facilities, private prisons are increasingly likely to be located in economically distressed rural areas. Prison expansion has spawned a new and powerful coalition of vested interests with stakes in keeping prisons full and building more of them. The result has been a financial and political bazaar with prisoners as the prize.

Any new prison is likely to remain operating in place for at least 50 years, which appeals to communities as a secure source of employment. But there is little evidence that prison hosting stimulates economic development at the local level (Herival & Wright, 2007). Several national and regional studies have demonstrated that rural counties that host prisons typically show no positive benefits in per capita income or reduced unemployment compared to nonprison areas. Why is this the case?

While prisons create jobs, they don’t usually go to people in those communities, who don’t have the skills or civil service rating to become a correctional officer. And in rural communities, people are used to commuting long distances to work, so guards at nearby prisons may choose to transfer to the new ones. Also, aggressive pursuit of new prisons can create an imbalance in a county’s economic development strategy. Energies devoted to prison lobbying can detract from other pursuits that might create more jobs. In addition, there is a stigma attached to becoming viewed as a prison town. How many people think of a family trip to Attica as a summer vacation option?

The prison-building binge may have slowed in recent years, but given the projected increases in national prison populations, other states may soon follow the lead of California, which recently established a plan to add another 53,000 prison, jail, and juvenile detention beds for an estimated cost of $7.9 billion. Though current economic woes have caused federal and state governments to reduce their investments in punishment, the expected future increase in the number of inmates, correctional institutions, and costs associated with the decades-long expansion has enough momentum to carry well into the mid-21st century.

Coercive Mobility in the 21st Century

The aim of get-tough sentencing policies was to reduce crime and improve community life, but neither policymakers nor the public anticipated how putting so many people in prison would damage the communities from which they were removed. While mass imprisonment has indeed incapacitated many who would otherwise have an overall negative effect on community life, it has also removed thousands of people who had a net positive effect on the economy, families, and the community as a whole. Many communities now face economic hardship, family disruption, and more crime due to high levels of incarceration.

A growing literature has begun to document the effects on community life of America’s 30-year incarceration binge, but only a few studies have analyzed the complex relationship between incarceration and crime. Most scholarship that examines the incarceration-crime relationship has applied a social disorganization framework. In their seminal Chicago Area Project, Shaw and McKay (1942) found that the highest crime rates were in neighborhoods marked by social disorganization: dilapidated housing and infrastructure; unemployment; poverty; and most important, high residential mobility—people moving in and out of the neighborhood at a high rate. Much subsequent research confirms that crime is disproportionately concentrated in these types of neighborhoods. Because of conditions in these neighborhoods, those who “make it” move out, eroding a community’s ability to maintain primary institutions like schools, churches, and neighborhood associations. Social disorganization theorists argue that high residential mobility limits the formation of strong social networks essential in controlling crime, undermining the stability necessary to establish the elements of social capital (i.e., trust, empowerment, norms, and reciprocity) that serve as the backbone of effective mechanisms of informal social control.

Coercive mobility (incarceration and prisoner reentry) is concentrated in poor, urban, and predominantly minority neighborhoods and is an important source of residential mobility that leads to social disorganization and crime. But unlike voluntary mobility, coercive mobility has profound negative effects on other aspects of social life such as labor market participation, family functioning, and political participation. While not all coercive mobility results in social disorganization, at some level (a “tipping point”) the benefit of removing those disruptive to the community (criminals) is outweighed by the costs of removing parents, workers, and family members who provide a net positive effect on social capital and informal social control. When the tipping point is reached, too much incarceration can weaken community economies, family relationships, and overall social capital and lead to higher crime rates.

Clear, Rose, Waring, and Scully (2003) collected community-level data regarding prison admission rates, prison release rates, and crime rates for several neighborhoods in Tallahassee, Florida, and Renauer, Cunningham, Feyerherm, O’Connor, and Bellatty (2006) collected similar data on 95 communities in the Portland, Oregon, area. Both research efforts found coercive mobility concentrated in poor communities with large minority populations, and communities with extremely high coercive mobility had higher subsequent crime rates even when controlling for other indicators of social disorganization. As expected, the relationship between coercive mobility and crime was curvilinear—incarceration reduced crime at moderate levels, but began to increase crime rates when they reached a tipping point of about 1.7 per 100 people in Tallahassee and about 2.75 per 100 in Portland.

High levels of incarceration may not lead to less crime because communities with the highest levels of incarceration (poor, predominantly minority ones) are actually weakened by the very thing that is supposed to make them safer. Research described above supports the idea that, at the community level, low and moderate levels of incarceration can reduce crime, but high levels of incarceration can increase it by reducing social and neighborhood capital.

Coercive Mobility and Counting Prisoners

In 21st-century America, imprisonment typically moves people out of large urban centers and into rural communities. This has major implications for electoral apportionment and financial distributions. The census general rule is to count people in their usual residence, “the place where they live and sleep most of the time.” The usual residence need not be the same as a person’s legal or voting residence, and a person need not be there at the time of the literal census. The person can take a vacation and still count at home, or even work overseas and still count at home.

The Census Bureau counts prisoners as residents of the town that contains the prison in which they are housed. This practice reduces the population of communities where most prisoners originate (usually urban, low-income, minority communities) and swells the population of rural communities that host prisons. When prisoners are counted as residents of the prison town, it leads to misleading portrayals of which counties are growing or declining. Urban and black communities are the losers in the census count, since congressional apportionment of services, grants, funds, poverty relief, welfare, and so forth are based on census figures.

An accurate count of the population is used to apportion voting representation, draw political boundaries, and allocate state and federal funds among local and state governments. Mass incarceration distorts this fundamental tool of representative democracy. In the 1990s, 30% of new residents in upstate NewYork were prisoners. About 200 counties in the United States have more than 5% of the population in prison. Many have more than 20% of their population in prison. (In at least 21 Texas counties, inmates account for over 20% of the local population.) But when released, prisoners usually return to the community they call home. Whatever benefits accrue to a jurisdiction by virtue of its population, urban communities with high incarceration rates are losing. Conversely, rural counties with prisons are getting more than their fair share.

The official constitutional purpose of the census is political apportionment. About 12% of all African American men live in prison. Most of them are apportioned to districts that do not reflect the interests of their home communities or their personal political concerns. Significant densities of prisoners in state legislative districts are important because most criminal justice policy is made at the state level. Each free resident of a rural district with prisons gets a larger voice in the state capital than free residents in urban districts that have high numbers of residents in prisons. Prisons inflate the political clout of every real rural constituent. And at the state level, counting urban residents as rural residents dilutes urban voting strength and increases the weight of a vote in rural districts.

Larger places (those with larger populations) receive a correspondingly larger share of government resources. The primary measure of size for determining resource distribution is the official census count. The coercive mobility of offenders creates a consistent distortion in funding formulas such that rural counties come out ahead of urban counties that send them prisoners. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) distributes some $60-70 million annually to poor Appalachian communities via the Appalachian Regional Commission, and population is a distribution factor—so rural communities with prisons have an advantage over those without prisons. The USDA does not intend to reward prison construction, but that is the result.

It is estimated that the total cost of counting prisoners in their prison communities rather than their home communities runs between $50 and $250 per person, and averages about $100 or more per prisoner for the local community where they are housed. When a jurisdiction plans to open a new 1,000-bed prison, it can generate at least $100,000 in new “unearned” revenues that accrue simply from counting the prisoners. That $100,000 doesn’t sound like much, but it can mean a new fire truck, a renovation for a youth center, or a computer upgrade for a municipality. In sparsely populated areas, large prisons in small towns can result in significant distortions of the local population. A new 500-bed prison can yield $50,000 in new revenue. The most dramatic impact can be seen in towns like Florence, Arizona, with a free population of about 5,000 and another 12,000 in at least three prisons. State and federal funds specifically linked to the prison population are estimated at $4 million annually. This has tempted other towns to follow the path toward prison hosting.

Another effect of coercive mobility and counting prisoners where they are held is on the calculation of per capita income, which is figured by dividing the total community income by the total population. When prisoners account for a substantial proportion of the population, the apparently low per capita income makes that community more competitive for U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) grants aimed at low-income areas. The appearance of greater need results in those communities getting more than their fair share. For example, in Virginia, distribution of K-12 education aid uses a formula based on county population. Several years ago, according to the Census Bureau, Rural Sussex County, which has a population that is 19% inmates, received $115,000 extra as a result of the imprisoned population. Henrico County (Richmond) loses roughly $200,000 as a result of the “exported” prisoner population. And because Latinos and blacks are imprisoned at 4-8 times the rate of whites, where incarcerated people are counted has significant implications for how black and Latino populations are reflected in the census.

Prison towns gain political clout through enhanced population, while the urban areas from which they come are further deprived through the loss of political influence and resources. When prison communities are credited with large, externally sourced populations of prisoners—who are not local residents—it turns the “one person, one vote” principle on its head. Prison towns do not share a “community of interest” with urban prisoners or their loved ones or neighborhoods. This phenomenon is unique to the new landscape of 21st-century corrections.

Prisoner Reentry in the 21st Century

Over the past 15 to 20 years, a significant body of scholarship has addressed the issue of prisoner reentry into society, a focus that evolved due to the rapidly increasing number of prisoners being released—now nearly 800,000 per year—as well as the high rate of recidivism. (About two thirds of prisoners are readmitted to prison within 3 years of release.) This issue has become a major concern among those who study issues associated with reentry, deterrence, rehabilitation, and the possible criminogenic effects of imprisonment. Some scholars are convinced that the return of so many offenders—many who are committed to a criminal lifestyle—has a significant independent effect on crime rates.

In 2000, researchers at the Urban Institute launched an ongoing inquiry into prisoner reentry research to better understand the pathways to successful reintegration; the social and fiscal costs of current policies; and the impacts of incarceration and reentry on individuals, families, and communities. Their findings focus on several key dimensions of reentry.

Housing and Reentry

Perhaps the most immediate challenge facing returning prisoners is to secure housing. Many plan to stay with families, but those who don’t face limited options. The process is complicated by scarcity of affordable and available housing, legal barriers and regulations, prejudices that restrict housing options, and strict eligibility requirements for federally subsidized housing. Research shows that those without stable housing are more likely to return to prison, and the majority of released prisoners themselves believe that having stable housing is important for successful reentry.

The majority of returning prisoners live with family members or intimate partners after release. Three months after release, 60% to 85% of returning prisoners live with families or partners. Many return home to living arrangements that are only temporary, and 6 to 8 months after release about one third had lived at more than one address. More than half of returning prisoners in Illinois thought they would not be staying in their current neighborhood for long, and in Maryland over half expected to be moving within weeks or months (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). Those who do not stay with family face limited options—many of which are unavailable to formerly incarcerated people. The shortage of affordable and available housing is a serious problem for returning prisoners.

Employment and Reentry

Finding and maintaining employment is critical to successful prisoner reentry. Employment is associated with lower rates of reoffending, and higher wages are associated with lower rates of criminal activity. But prisoners face enormous challenges in finding and maintaining legitimate job opportunities—including low levels of education, limited work experience, and limited vocational skills. This is further compounded by the incarceration period during which they forfeit the opportunity to gain marketable work experience and sever professional connections and social contacts that might lead to employment on release. In addition, the general reluctance of employers to hire former prisoners serves as a barrier to job placement.

While prisoners believe that having a job would help them stay out of prison, on average only about 1 in 5 reported that they had a job lined up immediately after release. Moreover, despite the need for employment assistance, few prisoners receive employment-related training in prison. Even ex-cons who do find work do not necessarily have full-time or consistent work. At 4 to 8 months after release, 44% of Illinois respondents reported having worked for at least 1 week since their release. But less than one third were employed at the time of the interview, and only 24% of all respondents were employed full-time. At their first post-release interview, nearly 60% of ex-cons in Maryland were either unemployed or working less than 40 hours per week (Lynch & Sabol, 2001). Making things more difficult, transportation is a significant barrier to employment. More than one third of released prisoners had problems obtaining a car for work, and nearly one quarter reported problems accessing public transportation. It is widely accepted that finding and maintaining employment reduces recidivism, and an increase in levels of employment serves to reduce drug dealing, violent crime, and property crime.

Health and Reentry

Released prisoners have an extremely high prevalence of mental disorders and chronic and infectious diseases—much higher than in the general population. Ex-cons face limited and insufficient access to community-based health care upon release. Further, incarceration disqualifies inmates from Medicaid eligibility, and restoring eligibility can take several months—interrupting access to prescription drugs and health care. Between 30 and 40% of released prisoners reported having a chronic physical or mental health condition—most commonly depression, asthma, and high blood pressure. In New Jersey, one third of those released in 2002 had at least one chronic or communicable medical condition. Many more released offenders report being diagnosed with a medical condition compared to those who received medication or treatment for the condition while incarcerated. Only 12% report having taken medication regularly in prison. In Ohio, over half reported depression, but only 35% reported receiving treatment or medication. While 27% reported having asthma, less than 14% received treatment for it (Lynch & Sabol, 2001).

Corrections agencies often lack discharge planning and preparation for health care needs upon release. Less than 10% of Illinois ex-cons received referrals to services in the community. Securing health care is a major concern for many released prisoners. At least 75% of those interviewed said they needed help getting health care after release. As might be expected, the vast majority of returning prisoners have no medical insurance—only 10% to 20% reported having private insurance.

Substance Use and Reentry

Research shows that while 83% of state prisoners have a history of drug use, only about 15% of this group receives treatment in prison, and even fewer continue to receive appropriate treatment once released. The majority of those released have extensive substance use histories. In Maryland, in the 6 months before entering prison, over 40% of offenders reported daily heroin use, while nearly 60% of returning prisoners in Texas reported daily cocaine use. Prisoners identify drug use as the primary cause of their past and current problems, but few prisoners receive drug treatment while incarcerated. In New Jersey, though 81% of inmates had drug or alcohol problems, program capacities were limited to only 6% of the state prison population. In Texas, substance abuse program capacity can only serve 5% of the potential population in need (Lynch & Sabol, 2001).

Researchers agree that in-prison treatment is much more likely to effectively sustain a decline in substance use if it is tailored to an individual’s need and level of risk, and if it is linked to drug treatment aftercare in the community. Those with substance use histories and who engage in substance use after release are very likely to reoffend.

Families and Reentry

Well over half of U.S. prisoners are parents of minor children, and up to 75% of incarcerated women are mothers of minors. Nearly 3% of all minor children in the United States, and nearly 10% of children of color, have a parent in prison. When a parent is sent to prison, the family structure, financial responsibilities, emotional support systems, and living arrangements are all affected. Incarceration can drastically disrupt spousal relations, parent – child relations, and family networks. There are significant challenges to maintaining family contact while in prison, including visiting regulations, transportation costs to distant facilities, other financial barriers, and emotional strains. More than half of incarcerated parents report never having received a visit from their children.

Nearly 75% of returning prisoners in Illinois and Maryland felt that family support had been important in helping them to avoid prison after release, and strong family support before prison may also reduce likelihood of recidivism. Those who reported positive family relations were less likely to be reconvicted, while those who reported negative family relations were more likely to be reconvicted and reincarcerated. Those with closer family relations and strong family support were less likely to have used drugs since release. Most prisoners have contact with family and children, but it is usually through phone and mail. In Illinois, only 13% of returning prisoners had had in-person contact with family members or children; 29% had visits from spouses/partners.

Distance to the correctional facility is one of the greatest challenges to maintaining contact. Three quarters of family members surveyed said the distance to the facility was the main problem with visitation. For the two thirds who did not visit family in prison, the median estimated travel time to the prison was 4 hours longer than those who did visit. This issue of distance and visitation is exacerbated in the context of coercive mobility. The 500 Hawaiian prisoners housed in Mississippi are unlikely to receive any visitation during their prison stay, and neither are the 1,500 Californian prisoners due there. States routinely exchange hundreds and thousands of prisoners in order to minimize the cost of housing them in-state.

Close family relationships can improve employment outcomes for returning prisoners, and closer family and partner relations and stronger family support result in more employment after release—likely because many releasees are hired by family members. But it has become increasingly common to export and import prisoners across state lines in order to save money, and more difficult for prisoners to maintain family ties and support systems while incarcerated.

Communities and Reentry

Released prisoners are returning in high concentrations to a small number of communities in urban areas—having a profound and disproportionate effect on community life, family networks, and social capital in these neighborhoods. These places are characterized by social and economic disadvantage, which compounds the problems associated with reentry. In addition, research shows that high rates of incarceration and reentry may destabilize these communities and result in higher crime rates.

A relatively large number of prisoners return to a small number of cities in each state. For example, recent data show that Chicago and Baltimore received more than half of all prisoners returning to Illinois and Maryland, respectively. Houston received one quarter of all prisoners returning to Texas. Two of New Jersey’s 21 counties accounted for one third of all returning prisoners. Nearly 49% of prisoners returning to Massachusetts returned to just two counties. Five of Idaho’s 44 counties accounted for three quarters of returning prisoners. Returning prisoners are often clustered in a few neighborhoods in these cities. For instance, 8% of Chicago communities accounted for over one third of all prisoners returning to Chicago; 7% of the zip codes in Wayne County, Michigan (8 of 115)—all of which are in Detroit—accounted for over 40% of all prisoners being released in that state.

High levels of social and economic disadvantage characterize communities to which prisoners return. These communities have above-average rates of unemployment, female-headed households, and families living below the federal poverty level. Former prisoners who relocate tend to move to neighborhoods similar to the ones they left, with similar disadvantages, and prisoners returning to neighborhoods that are unsafe and lacking in social capital are at greater risk of recidivism and reincarceration.

Public Safety and Reentry

Over two thirds of released prisoners are arrested for a new crime within 3 years of release—many within the first year. Released prisoners make a substantial contribution to new crimes. Most returning prisoners have extensive criminal histories. Most returning prisoners (80%-90%) had at least one prior conviction, and at least two thirds have previously served time in prison. In Massachusetts, 99% of those released in 2002 had been previously incarcerated in a state or county facility. About 80% of those released from the Philadelphia prison system had been previously incarcerated there.

Many released prisoners are reconvicted or rearrested for new crimes—many within the first year of release. About one third are reconvicted or reincarcerated within 1 year. In Maryland, about one third had been rearrested for at least one new crime within 6 months of release, 10% had been reconvicted, and 16% had been returned to prison/jail for a new crime conviction or parole/probation violation. Releasees with substance use histories and who use substances after release are at high risk to recidivate.

Community Supervision and Reentry

The vast majority of released prisoners (over 80%) are subject to a period of community supervision. There are now over 800,000 parolees in the United States, up from about 200,000 in 1980. And there are many more offenders under probation or some other community-based sanction—of the 8 million under correctional supervision, about 70% are in the community. Resources have not kept up with the increase. Most probation and parole officers average 70 or more cases—about twice the recommended number. Persons on community supervision account for nearly 40% of new prison admissions nationally. Parole and probation violations have increased significantly over the past 25 years, and the number of persons returning to prison for a violation increased 1,000% between 1980 and 2000. About 40% of prisoners in state prison/jail are serving time for a probation and parole violation. Probation and parole officers appear to have little effect on rearrest rates of released prisoners. Findings show that prisoners who are released under supervision fare no better than those without supervision—their rearrest and reconviction rates are not significantly different.

What does all this tell us? Prisoner reentry is fraught with problems, the numbers are increasing rapidly, and not enough resources are being put into the process—particularly given the increase in the number of returning prisoners. This is a growing and difficult problem that has no easy solution and that requires significant investment in time and energy to address.

Invisible Punishments in the 21st Century

Entering the 21st century, a new set of dynamics has come into play that calls for an understanding of the ways in which the effects of prison on society are both quantitatively and qualitatively different from previous times. These effects have been conceptualized as collateral consequences of imprisonment and have been dubbed “invisible punishments” by scholars (see Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002, for an overview). They are invisible in that they are rarely acknowledged in the courtroom when they are imposed, and equally rarely assessed in public policy discussions. These themes, and their impact on individuals and communities, should be the subject of careful scrutiny by those who study prison dynamics in the 21st century. While prison has always affected the individuals who are imprisoned and their families, the scale of imprisonment now magnifies these effects and expands their scope. Further, the racial dynamics of imprisonment have become a central component of this social policy.

Barriers to Reintegration Among Released Offenders

Once a prison term is completed, the transition back into the community is almost always difficult. Having limited connections with the world of work, for example, becomes even more problematic with the stigma of imprisonment attached to former offenders. In an economy increasingly characterized by a division between high skills/high technology and a low-skill service economy, few offenders have promising prospects for advancing up the job ladder—or even finding a spot at the bottom of it.

Over the past 30 years, policymakers have expanded the reach of punishments beyond sentencing enhancements, and have enacted a new generation of collateral sanctions that impose serious obstacles to a person’s life chances long after a sentence has been completed. Many of these obstacles are related to the war on drugs, and include a seemingly endless series of restrictions placed on those convicted of a drug offense. Depending on the state, an 18-year-old with a first-time conviction for felony drug possession now may be barred from receiving welfare benefits for life, prohibited from living in public housing, denied student loans to attend college, permanently excluded from voting, and may be deported if not a U.S. citizen. Ironically, many of these sanctions pertain only to drug offenders, not those convicted of murder, rape, and other serious violent offenses.

Impact on Families and Communities

A growing number of children have a parent in prison, and current estimates place this number at well over 1.5 million. But the racial dynamics of imprisonment produce a figure of between 7% and 10% or up to 1 in 10 for black children. Since this reflects a 1-day count, the proportion of black children who have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their childhood is considerably greater. Being the child of a criminal is not a status worth boasting about; shame and stigma are still the norm. One common consequence of this stigma is the severance of social ties to family and friends, which low-income families rely upon to cope with poverty and other hardships. The impact of parental incarceration will vary depending on which parent is imprisoned. Mothers in prison are far more likely to have been primary caretakers of children prior to imprisonment and were often single parents, and this dramatically impacts the children they leave behind.

In addition to the experience and stigma of parental incarceration, children in low-income minority communities now grow up with a strong likelihood of spending time in prison themselves. An estimated 1 in 3 black males born today can expect to go to prison. While they may not know these odds, their life experiences communicate this reality as they witness older brothers, cousins, parents, and neighbors cycling in and out of prison. Some contend that prison has become a “rite of passage” for young black men today and is almost welcomed as a badge of honor in certain communities. Prison is increasingly viewed as an inevitable part of the maturation process for many low-income minority children—in the same way that going to college is the norm in many middle and upper-class communities. When there is little chance of traditional success (schools, college, jobs, marriage, etc), the often-taught value of hard work leading to success may seem unrealistic to many children in these communities.

Mass Imprisonment and Voter Disenfranchisement

When the nation was founded in the late 1700s, the vast majority of people in the United States were ineligible to participate in democratic life. Excluded were women, blacks, Native Americans, and other minorities, as well as illiterates, poor people, and felons. Only white males were “citizens” with the right to vote. Over the course of 200 years, restrictions for all these categories have been lifted—save for those with felony convictions.

Today, some 5 million Americans are ineligible to vote as a result of a felony conviction in the 48 states and D.C. that employ disenfranchisement policies for varying degrees of felons and ex-felons. If there was any doubt about the effect of these laws, consider the 2000 presidential election in Florida. That election was decided by less than 1,000 votes in favor of George W. Bush, while an estimated 600,000 former offenders—people who had already completed their sentences—were ineligible to vote due to that state’s restrictive policies. One wonders who most former inmates would have supported.

While an estimated 2% to 3% of the national population is disenfranchised, the rate for black men is 13%, and in some states is well over 20%. When such high numbers of men in urban communities can’t vote, the voting power/efficacy of that whole community is reduced in relation to communities with low rates of incarceration. New evidence indicates that disenfranchisement effects go well beyond the legally disenfranchised population. Studies of voter turnout show that in the most restrictive states, voter turnout is lower, particularly among African Americans, and even among persons who themselves are not disenfranchised as a result of a felony conviction. Voting is a civic duty, and a process engaged in with families and communities. Family members talk about elections at home, drive to polls together, and see their neighbors there. When a substantial number of people in a community are legally unable to vote, it is likely to dampen enthusiasm and attention among others as well. Forty years after the Voting Rights Act was passed, mass imprisonment and disenfranchisement results in a greater proportion of African American and other minority communities losing the right to vote each year.

Mass Imprisonment and State Budgets

Regarding the impact of mass imprisonment on state economies, specifically higher education, a recent report by Grassroots Leadership shows how massive spending on Mississippi prisons has siphoned funds from classrooms and students, leaving higher education appropriations stagnant and African Americans shouldering the burden. The report documents a startling shift in Mississippi budget priorities. In 1992, the state spent most of the discretionary portion of its budget on higher education. By 2002, the majority of discretionary funds went to build and operate prisons. Between 1989 and 1999, Mississippi saw per capita state corrections appropriations rise by 115%, while per capita state higher education appropriations increased by less than 1%. Mississippi built 17 new prisons between 1997 and 2005, but not one new state college or university. And several more Mississippi prisons are under construction or consideration. There are now almost twice as many African American men in Mississippi prisons as in colleges and universities, and the state spends nearly twice as much to incarcerate an inmate as it takes to send someone to college. Moreover, due to new drug laws and a “truth-insentencing” bill passed in the mid-1990s, nearly 70% of those imprisoned in the state are nonviolent offenders. Mississippi is not unique in this situation—most states have followed this path and are facing serious budget shortages due to multiyear commitments to expand their correctional systems.

These and other dynamics of mass imprisonment make up what are called invisible punishments or collateral consequences. Changing the trends noted here are difficult for several reasons. First, it is very difficult to alter prevailing sentencing policies and practices, which can be legislated in a matter of hours but take years to undo. In a broader sense, the national commitment to mass imprisonment is deeply embedded in a punitive and individualistic approach to social policy. This has not always been the case in the United States, and is certainly not the style adopted in many other countries. Changing this political and social environment remains the real obstacle to a more effective and humane crime policy.

Race and Imprisonment in the 21st Century

In the 50-plus years since the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that ordered desegregation of public education, no American institution has changed more than the criminal justice system, and in ways that have profound effects on the African American community. Mass imprisonment has produced record numbers of Americans in prison and jail (now approaching 2.5 million) and has had a disproportionate effect on African Americans. There are now about 10 times as many African Americans in prison/jail as on the day of the Brown decision (98,000 in 1954; nearly 1,000,000 in 2007).

Today, 1 out of every 21 black men is incarcerated on any given day. For black men in their twenties, the figure is 1 in 8. Given current trends, 1 of every 3 (32%) black males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime (U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics [BJS] Web site). More than half of black men in their early 30s who are high school dropouts have a prison record. With regard to black women, 1 of every 18 black females born today can expect to go to prison—6 times the rate for white women. Moreover, black women born today are 5 times more likely to go to prison in their lifetimes than black women born 30 years ago.

Factors contributing to the dramatic increase in the number of African Americans in prison/jail are complex, and involve dynamics both within and outside the criminal justice system. Incarceration rates are about 8 times higher for blacks overall than for whites, and high school dropouts are more than twice as likely to end up in prison than are high school graduates. Consequently, much of the growth in imprisonment has been concentrated among minority young men with little education. By the late 1990s, two thirds of all prison inmates were black or Hispanic, and about half of all minority inmates had less than 12 years of schooling.

Imprisonment has become so pervasive among young black men that it is now viewed as a common stage in the life course by some researchers (Pettit & Western, 2004). Among all men born between 1965 and 1969, an estimated 3% of whites and 20% of blacks had served time in prison by their early thirties. Among black men born during this period, 30% of those without a college education and nearly 60% of high school dropouts went to prison by 1999. For black men in their mid-30s at the start of the 21st century, prison records were nearly twice as common as bachelor’s degrees, and imprisonment was more than twice as common as military service. Imprisonment has become a common life event for black men that sharply distinguishes their transition to adulthood from that of white men.

Black/white inequality is obscured by using employment and wage figures that fail to include inmates. From a life course perspective, the earnings of ex-convicts diverge from the earnings of non-convicts as men get older. By their late 20s, non-convicts have usually settled into a stable path of earnings growth, while ex-convicts follow an unstable trajectory of irregular/transitory employment and low earnings. Research notes that white offenders tend to age out of crime earlier than do black offenders, suggesting that employment and wage earning deficits experienced by black ex-convicts may endure for a longer period of time than for white ex-convicts.

Changes in the criminal justice system over the past 25 years have been wide-ranging, affecting policing, sentencing, prison construction, postrelease supervision, and a variety of other policy areas at the state and federal levels. The sheer magnitude of the commitment of public resources is comparable to that expended in the social welfare efforts of the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike antipoverty policy, however, the punitive trend in criminal justice policy serves to conceal and deepen economic inequality between blacks and whites. Whereas it has often been considered how welfare, employment, and education policy affects inequality, it is now known that criminal justice policy over the past 25 years has impacted racial economic inequality in a significant way, to the point where inequality can be seen as a product of the expansion of mass imprisonment.


Over the past 30 years, a complex set of social and political developments has produced a wave of building and filling prisons unprecedented in human history. Beginning with less than 200,000 in 1972, the number of inmates in U.S. prisons has increased to over 1.5 million today. Add to this the over 800,000 inmates in local and regional jails either awaiting trial or serving sentences, and a remarkable 2.4 million (and counting) Americans are behind bars as of 2008.

These figures take on more meaning in comparison with other nations. The United States locks up offenders at a rate 6 to 10 times that of other industrialized nations. The nextclosest nation to ours in incarceration rates is Russia—which has been de-incarcerating for several years now. The nature and meaning of incarceration in the United States have changed in a variety of profound ways with far-reaching implications.

Among these is the institutionalization of a societal commitment to the use and expansion of a massive prison system. Nearly two thirds of prisons today have been built in the past 20 years. These prisons are expected to hold offenders for at least the next 50 years, guaranteeing a national commitment to a high rate of incarceration. The growth of the system has spawned a set of vested interests and lobbying forces that perpetuate a societal commitment to imprisonment. The nearly 1,000,000 prison and jail guards, administrators, service workers, and other personnel represent a potentially powerful political opposition to any scaling down of the system.

The idea of prisons as sources of economic growth appeals to many communities that have lost jobs in recent years. Communities that once organized against the location of prisons now beg state officials and private prison companies to construct new prisons in their backyards. But the scarce research available questions the promise of prisons as economic development catalysts. There is also a rapidly expanding prison privatization movement focused on the bottom line of profiting from imprisonment. Privatization has produced a new dynamic in mass imprisonment that encourages the production of more inmates—which means more money and more profits.

The near permanent status of mass imprisonment is evidenced despite expressed concerns that often focus on the problem of funding for an expanding prison system that diverts resources from other public spending. Vast expenditures on corrections systems are now considered the norm, and represent the largest growth area in most state budgets. Virtually every state has engaged in a significant if not massive prison construction program over the past 20 years, financed through general funds; bonds; and more recently, public-private venture arrangements, which put communities into further long-term debt.

The impact of incarceration on individuals can be understood to some degree, but the effect of mass imprisonment on African American communities is a phenomenon that has only recently been investigated. Marc Mauer (Mauer & Chesney-Lind, 2002) of The Sentencing Project has asked what it means to a community to know that 4 out of 10 boys growing up will spend time in prison; what it does to family and community to have such a substantial proportion of its young men enmeshed in the criminal justice system; what images and values are communicated to young people who see the prisoner as the most prominent or pervasive role model in the community; and what the effect is on a community’s political influence when one quarter of black men cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction.

New prison cells are increasingly being used for drug and nonviolent offenders. About 3 of every 5 (61%) new inmates added to the system in the 1990s were incarcerated for a nonviolent drug or property offense. In the federal system, three quarters (74%) of the increase in the inmate population are attributed to drug offenses alone. Incarcerating ever-increasing numbers of nonviolent property and drug offenders is not the only option open to policymakers, nor is it the most cost-effective. A large proportion of these offenders would be appropriate candidates for diversion to community-based programs—if policy could be diverted away from imprisonment.

Direct consequences of the wars on drugs and crime include the imprisonment of literally millions of people, most of whom are guilty of relatively petty crimes; their lengthy and debilitating incarceration; and their ejection (reentry) back into society—ill-prepared and handicapped by their stigmatized social status. The direct financial cost of the imprisonment binge has been well publicized, and exceeds $60 billion per year. What has not been emphasized enough are the invisible or collateral damages of mass imprisonment, including the harm done to other social programs because so much money has been siphoned off into corrections, the diminution of civil rights of many kinds, the erosion of traditional values of fairness and tolerance, the damage done to families and communities, and the creation of new and powerful lobbying groups with vested interests in more imprisonment. Imprisonment in the 21st century has generated far-reaching consequences that touch virtually every aspect of life, for prisoners and non-prisoners alike, and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future.