In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mass Incarceration in the United States and its Collateral Consequences

  • Introduction
  • History and Causes of Mass Incarceration in the United States
  • General Overviews of the Collateral Consequences of Mass Incarceration
  • Consequences for Families
  • Consequences for Communities and Society

Sociology Mass Incarceration in the United States and its Collateral Consequences
Meaghan Mingo, Anna R. Haskins
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0251


Mass incarceration is characterized by comparatively and historically extreme rates of imprisonment in the United States, which rose drastically from the early 1970s through 2007 or so. Disproportionately affecting young, Black men from neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, many factors contributed to the steady increase in incarceration from the early 1970s forward. While rising crime rates and harsh societal attitudes toward those convicted of crimes played a part, scholars largely argue that increases in both the likelihood of imprisonment for committing a crime and the length of prison sentences drove the increase in incarceration. Supported by more-intensive and place-based forms of policing, individuals and entire communities faced increasing contact with the criminal justice system. Underlying these policy changes lay deeper social, political, and economic drivers, which often varied by state or other jurisdictions. Ultimately, policy changes mandating longer sentences for repeat offenses (such as three-strike laws) and state and federal laws that increased the length of prison sentences for drug-related and violent crime led to a rising incarceration rate, which meant that far more Americans were serving time and for much-longer sentences than ever before. While the rate of incarceration for men has started to decline slightly, rates for women have risen. During the first two decades of the 21st century, researchers have increasingly focused their efforts on understanding and documenting the collateral consequences of mass incarceration. Beyond the individuals directly impacted, incarceration affects the lives of children and families, neighborhoods, communities, and broader society. Individuals and families especially experience detrimental effects in the education, labor market, and health spheres, while communities suffer “spillover effects,” with even those not directly touched by incarceration affected. With nearly one in thirty-six adults living under some form of correctional supervision (whether in prison or jail, or on probation or parole), and many others “marked” by their past experience with the system, mass incarceration has touched the lives of millions of Americans. Further, racial disparities throughout each phase of the criminal justice system, including in policing, arrest, conviction, and sentencing, have resulted in Americans of color disproportionately experiencing incarceration and its attendant effects. As such, mass incarceration is understood to be a major contributor to 21st-century American inequality along lines of race, class, and gender.

History and Causes of Mass Incarceration in the United States

This section highlights a selection of scholarship that tackles different dimensions of the prison boom in the United States, since there are far too many excellent pieces on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration to include them all here. Alexander 2010 tackles the racialized dimensions of mass incarceration, including those broadly focused on historical and modern racialized policies, and Forman 2017 focuses on the role of Black leaders in supporting the expansion of incarceration and the unforeseen deleterious consequences for residents of poor Black communities. Gilmore 2007, Lynch 2009, and Schoenfeld 2018 examine the prison boom through the cases of specific states, deeply exploring the nuances of economics, politics, policies, and practices locally and nationally that contributed to the drastic rise in incarceration, while Campbell and Schoenfeld 2013 uses multiple state case studies and national-level analysis to understand the punitive turn in the United States. For those interested in the place-based nature of incarceration itself, Eason 2017 focuses on factors contributing to the proliferation of prisons in rural areas. To understand the evolution of the penal system over two hundred years, readers should look to Goodman, et al. 2017, which reframes this process as a struggle, Gottschalk 2006, which historicizes the phenomenon and frames it as state-building power, and Garland 2001, a seminal work on crime control and incarceration both in the United States and the United Kingdom. For a broad overview of causes of mass incarceration, Travis, et al. 2014 is a volume that pulls together many of the political, social, and economic contributors to the prison boom while also providing a strong overview of the scope and extent of this uniquely American phenomenon.

  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press.

    One of the most popular books on mass incarceration with the general public, this work centers on an argument about mass incarceration as a system of racial dominance and control. A theoretical argument, this work explores crime control policies, criminal justice “reforms,” and historical context such as Jim Crow laws and slavery.

  • Campbell, Michael C., and Heather Schoenfeld. 2013. The transformation of America’s penal order: A historicized political sociology of punishment. American Journal of Sociology 118.5: 1375–1423.

    The authors use comparative historical methods, including multiple state-level case studies and national-level narratives, to examine the transformation in the American penal system. Illustrates the complex, intertwined relationship between national politics, policy, and court decisions and state-level politics, policies, and interest groups, and how the process resulted in the punitive turn at both levels in the United States.

  • Eason, John M. 2017. Big house on the prairie: Rise of the rural ghetto and prison proliferation. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    An excellent and accessible exploration of America’s prison boom and its concentration in rural areas. On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork in Arkansas, Eason aptly explores the politics of rural prison-building through examining the decision-making, motivations, and intersections of race and economics in this process. Notably, this work adds the dimension of municipal status and stigma to previous research that focused more on considerations of economic development.

  • Forman, James, Jr. 2017. Locking up our own: Crime and punishment in Black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    A Pulitzer Prize–winning book, this is a nuanced and accessible read that describes how in the face of high crime rates and drug use, the first major cohort of Black judges, police chiefs, and mayors contributed to the rise of mass incarceration through embracing “tough on crime” policies, with devastating effects on poor Black neighborhoods.

  • Garland, David. 2001. The culture of control. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A seminal work on mass incarceration, this book chronicles the transformations of crime control in the United Kingdom and the United States, describing the factors underpinning the rise in mass incarceration and the connections between the criminal justice and welfare states.

  • Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2007. Golden gulag: Prisons, surplus, crisis, and opposition in globalizing California. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    This important book offers a careful examination of the prison expansion process in California, arguing that changing and declining industries led to both economic insecurity and many forms of surplus (labor, land, capital), all of which enabled prison expansion to emerge as a “fix” to these problems.

  • Goodman, Philip, Joshua Page, and Michelle Phelps. 2017. Breaking the pendulum: The long struggle over criminal justice. Oxford, New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This book offers a useful overview of the evolution of the penal system and its changes over the past two hundred years plus. The authors challenge the commonly accepted description of the criminal justice system as a pendulum, reframing it as a product of struggle—between actors, laws, institutions, and perspectives on crime and punishment.

  • Gottschalk, Marie. 2006. The prison and the gallows: The politics of mass incarceration in America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book focuses on mass incarceration as a historical phenomenon, arguing that it is an exercise of state-building power. Readers may find interesting chapters that discuss how vastly different political groups—feminists, death penalty opponents, victims’ rights advocates, and prisoners’-rights activists—contributed to the rise in mass incarceration, often inadvertently. Notable for two chapters on capital punishment.

  • Lynch, Mona. 2009. Sunbelt justice: Arizona and the transformation of American punishment. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    This book explores the trajectory of prison expansion in Arizona. Notable for its focus on the role of the philosophy of leading punishment-oriented lawman Frank Eyman, who served as head of the Arizona State Prison from 1955 to 1972, the book details how local events, the state’s top-down political process in the realm of prisons, and its history of harsh and inexpensive prisons allowed them to resist any progressive reforms.

  • Schoenfeld, Heather. 2018. Building the prison state. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A sophisticated look at the feedback loop between local, state, and national policies and sentiments and the carceral state, this book offers new insights into the embrace of imprisonment despite initial reluctance from both sides of the political aisle. Notable for its focus on racial projects and the forces that built the infrastructure necessary for increased incarceration, including, paradoxically, progressive attempts for prison reform and efforts to limit violence against people of color.

  • Travis, Jeremy F., Stevens Redburn, and Bruce Western, eds. 2014. The growth of incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and consequences. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

    Though this report also addresses the consequences of incarceration, readers interested in the causes of the prison boom should focus their attention on chapters 2–6, which detail the policies, practices, and motivations of growing incarceration and also provide a sense of the scope, disparities, and experience of incarceration. This report is also notable for combining literature on social, economic, and political causes with more-proximate causes such as sentencing.

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