in the New York Times:

...Eleven years after her husband went to prison, Ms. Hamilton followed his advice to divorce, but she didn’t remarry. Like other women in communities with high rates of incarceration, she faced a shortage of potential mates. Because more than 90 percent of prisoners are men, their absence skews the gender ratio. In some neighborhoods in Washington, there are 6 men for every 10 women.

“With so many men locked up, the ones left think they can do whatever they want,” Ms. Hamilton said. “A man will have three mistresses, and they’ll each put up with it because there are no other men around.”

Epidemiologists have found that when the incarceration rate rises in a county, there tends to be a subsequent increase in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, possibly because women have less power to require their partners to practice protected sex or remain monogamous.

When researchers try to explain why AIDS is much more prevalent among blacks than whites, they point to the consequences of incarceration, which disrupts steady relationships and can lead to high-risk sexual behavior. When sociologists look for causes of child poverty and juvenile delinquency, they link these problems to the incarceration of parents and the resulting economic and emotional strains on families.

Some families, of course, benefit after an abusive parent or spouse is locked up. But Christopher Wildeman, a Yale sociologist, has found that children are generally more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. Boys left fatherless become more physically aggressive. Spouses of prisoners become more prone to depression and other mental and physical problems. ...

Before the era of mass incarceration, there was already evidence linking problems in poor neighborhoods to the high number of single-parent households and also to the high rate of mobility: the continual turnover on many blocks as transients moved in and out.

Now those trends have been amplified by the prison boom’s “coercive mobility,” as it is termed by Todd R. Clear, the dean of the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University. In some low-income neighborhoods, he notes, virtually everyone has at least one relative currently or recently behind bars, so families and communities are continually disrupted by people going in and out of prison.

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Articles by Eve Tushnet

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