Nearly Half of All Americans Have a Family Member Who's Been Jailed

Warden Shelith Hansbro, Alexis, Moms with Babies program
Warden Shelith Hansbro holds 3-month-old Alexis while visiting with inmates at the Decatur Correctional Center in Decatur, Illinois. Alexis lives with her mother at the prison as part of the Moms with Babies program, which boasts a zero percent recidivism rate. Scott Olson/Getty Images

If hot dogs, baseball and apple pie are part of the quintessential American experience, sadly, mass incarceration may not be far behind. A study published in Sage Journals in March 2019 showed that nearly half of all U.S. citizens have an immediate family member (spouse, parent, sibling or child) who has been incarcerated for at least one night.

The study, which was led by Cornell researchers, is the first ever to pinpoint the percentage of American families touched by the country's prison system. Researchers surveyed more than 4,000 subjects, who were representative of the country's makeup as a whole, to find out if they had family members who had ever spent time in jail or prison.


The study leaders thought that the number might hover around 23 percent. But the real figures shocked them. "We were very surprised that nearly one in two adults have had an immediate family member spend at least one night in jail or prison, that siblings were the most common immediate family member to have been incarcerated, and that even among the most educated (those with a bachelor's degree or more), almost 1 in 3 (30 percent) have had an immediate family member spend time in jail or prison," says lead study author Peter Enns in an email interview.

This is perhaps a bit less surprising once you know that America has the world's highest incarceration rate, with more than 2.2 million people jailed or imprisoned, akin to jailing almost the entire population of Houston.

College-educated whites were the least likely to encounter this phenomenon, according to the study. Just 15 percent of them had a family member in jail or prison. On the flip side, about 60 percent of African-Americans and those with lower levels of education had close experiences with the prison system. Even 55 percent of African-Americans with college degrees had a relative who had been jailed or imprisoned.

Enns attributes the high percentage of Americans with incarcerated family members to the length of prison sentences handed out in the U.S.; the country's tendency to impose prison sentences rather than treatment; its very rigid parole system that leads many to return to prison, often without the commission of new crimes; and the high level of pre-trial incarceration.

Study leaders hope that their research will remove some of the stigma of incarceration by showing how widespread it is. "Sentences for both nonviolent and violent crimes needs to be reduced. We also need a correctional system that helps prepare those who are incarcerated return to society and supports these individuals when they are released," Enns says.