Next year marks 50 years since rates of imprisonment rapidly increased in the U.S., making it the country with the most prisoners in the world. The overwhelming majority of them, 93%, are men.
But the impact of their incarceration is felt far beyond those men — with a major impact on their partners, their children and even their parents.
“We know that when individuals go on the inside, that they leave behind family members who are often women and children who are holding things down,” sociology professor Hedwig Lee said on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air.
She recently co-authored a review about incarceration’s toll on people with a family member in prison. Lee’s study, published in Science, notes that mass incarceration disproportionately impacts families with lower income levels and people of color. Having a family member in prison, the study finds, exacerbates preexisting disadvantages.
“It is true that lots of families are facing challenges prior to their family members becoming incarcerated. But research using, I would say, some pretty sophisticated modeling techniques to try to identify causal associations, work that's using cross comparative data across countries, suggests that the experience of having a family member incarcerated further amplifies these sorts of challenges,” Lee said.
“So there's ways in which inequality is further amplified. If we were able to reduce mass incarceration, we would see a reduction in sort of negative outcome for these same families.”
State Rep. Kevin Windham, a Democrat who represents part of St. Louis County, said in a tweet that he’s an example of that.
Lee said Windham’s experience “echoes lots of experiences that children have when a family member goes behind bars.”
“It can impact them emotionally,” she continued. “Their mental health can be compromised. This can also impact their physical health, often because they're experiencing distress or loss of a family member that might impact their health behaviors.”
Lee joined host Friday’s program to talk about her latest research and suggest ways to offset the collateral damage brought on by mass incarceration. She is also the associate director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity and Equity at Washington University in St. Louis.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.