In This Article Mass Incarceration

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Defining Mass Incarceration
  • The Causes of Mass Incarceration
  • Effects on Crime

Criminology Mass Incarceration
Christopher Wildeman
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0033


Whether called mass incarceration, mass imprisonment, the prison boom, the carceral state, or hyperincarceration, this phenomenon refers to the current American experiment in incarceration, which is defined by comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment and by the concentration of imprisonment among young, African American men living in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage. Although there is scholarly consensus about how to define mass incarceration, there is some level of disagreement over its causes and consequences. Some say it deters and incapacitates; others say that it weakens poor families, keeping them socially marginalized. While some have advanced a functionalist argument as to the causes of mass imprisonment, suggesting that it is the fourth “peculiar institution” for the control of African Americans—following slavery, Jim Crow, and the ghetto—others have argued that a combination of cultural shifts, political realignments, changes in job prospects for low-skilled men, and perhaps most importantly, legal changes have driven the dramatic increase and absolute disparity in rates of imprisonment over the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The massive increases in imprisonment might be justifiable if public safety were dramatically improved. Yet despite some accounts suggesting quite beneficial effects of incarceration on crime rates, the majority of the evidence now suggests either that incarceration’s effects on crime are not nearly as large as once suspected or that the crime-fighting benefits of imprisonment have so diminished over the last few years of the 20th century and the early 21st century that incarceration is now a much less effective method for crime control than it was before the 1990s. Given the high rates of imprisonment and racial disparity in imprisonment, incarceration may be significant as a generator of social inequality. It is this possibility that recent research considers, focusing on effects on the individuals who cycle through the system and on those who are attached to them—their communities, families, and friends. Despite substantial obstacles to causal inference (a point stressed in many of these readings), much of this research suggests that mass incarceration has the potential to substantially increase social inequality, because it is unequally distributed and because it has negative effects on prisoners and their social correlates. Although much of the research considers the consequences of imprisonment for individuals in nations with lower overall rates of incarceration (most notably the United Kingdom and The Netherlands), the majority of the works cited here focus on effects in the United States, where incarceration levels are high.

General Overviews

There are so many excellent general overviews of the meaning, causes, and consequences of mass incarceration that it would be impossible to list them all. While earlier general overviews focus mostly on gaps in knowledge (Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999, Lynch and Sabol 2000), subsequent overviews focus on effects on inequality (Pattillo, et al. 2004; Wakefield and Uggen 2010; Western 2006) or the families of prisoners (Comfort 2007; Pattillo, et al. 2004; Wakefield and Uggen 2010; Western 2006; Wildeman and Western 2010). Crucially, there is sufficient diversity in the sophistication of these overviews that there is a general overview appropriate for almost anyone. Indeed, one overview even provides econometric analyses of the causes and consequences of mass imprisonment (Raphael and Stoll 2009).

  • Comfort, Megan. 2007. Punishment beyond the legal offender. Annual Review of Law and Social Science 3:271–296.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.lawsocsci.3.081806.112829E-mail Citation »

    An overview of the consequences of mass imprisonment for those attached to prisoners. Distinctively excellent for its summary and analysis of the qualitative research in this area. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Hagan, John, and Ronit Dinovitzer. 1999. Collateral consequences of imprisonment for children, communities, and prisoners. Crime and Justice 26:121–162.

    DOI: 10.1086/449296E-mail Citation »

    The first review to discuss in detail the potential consequences of mass imprisonment for children. Even years after its publication, this article contains a number of important (and falsifiable) hypotheses that have yet to be tested empirically. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Lynch, James P., and William J. Sabol. 2000. Prison use and social control. In Policies, processes, and decisions of the criminal justice system: Criminal justice 2000. Vol. 3. Edited by Julie Horney, 7–44. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

    E-mail Citation »

    A classic essay describing the explosion in US prison populations from 1980 to 2000 and its devastating impacts on inner-city families and communities.

  • Pattillo, Mary, David Weiman, and Bruce Western, eds. 2004. Imprisoning America: The social effects of mass incarceration. New York: Russell Sage.

    E-mail Citation »

    An extremely high-quality edited volume (and a favorite of the edited volumes to read cover to cover). This volume provides a nice combination of synopses of book-length manuscripts plus research available only in this volume.

  • Raphael, Steven, and Michael A. Stoll, eds. 2009. Do prisons make us safer? The benefits and costs of the prison boom. New York: Russell Sage.

    E-mail Citation »

    By far the most empirically sophisticated of the edited volumes and hence recommended only for those with some training in statistics (preferably economics). Each chapter in this volume is nonetheless excellent. Amy E. Lerman’s chapter is especially suggested.

  • Wakefield, Sara, and Christopher Uggen. 2010. Incarceration and stratification. Annual Review of Sociology 36:387–406.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.012809.102551E-mail Citation »

    A recent review in this area and probably the strongest. Although the review itself is excellent, the discussion of obstacles to causal inference and the potential benefits of imprisonment (if not mass imprisonment) for inequality are especially insightful. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Western, Bruce. 2006. Punishment and inequality in America. New York: Russell Sage.

    E-mail Citation »

    Not really an overview in that it addresses one question: What are the consequences of mass imprisonment for inequality among adult men? It is a classic in the field and should be among the first works read by anyone interested in mass incarceration.

  • Wildeman, Christopher, and Bruce Western. 2010. Incarceration in fragile families. Future of Children 20:157–177.

    DOI: 10.1353/foc.2010.0006E-mail Citation »

    Provides an overview of the causes of mass imprisonment with the most recent review of the consequences of mass imprisonment for inequality among children, one of the areas of research that has received the most attention in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

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