Title: Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Intergenerational Transmission of Stigma and Disadvantage
Name: Christopher Wildeman

Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology
Yale University
christopher.wildeman@yale.edu

Year: 2007
Type: Dissertation Fellowship
Summary: In my dissertation (Parental Incarceration, the Prison Boom, and the Intergenerational Transmission of Stigma and Disadvantage), I addressed three question about the consequences of mass imprisonment for childrena topic that had been mostly, although not entirely ignored.

First, I sought to consider what percentage of black and white children could expect to have a parent imprisoned at some point during their childhoodmeasured as ending at age 14. I also sought to consider class differences within race in these risks. The findings from this chapter, later published (as Parental Incarceration, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Disadvantage) were stark. Black children born in 1990 had a 25 percent chance of having their father imprisoned between their birth and their 14th birthday. For black children whose fathers did not complete high school, the risk was greater than 50 percent. Not surprisingly, these risks dwarfed the risks for white children. To show just how great these disparities were, consider that while 3.3 percent of black children could expect to have their mother imprisoned at some point, only 3.6 percent of white children could expect to have their father imprisoned at some point.

After establishing these dramatic disparities in the risk of parental imprisonment, I then sought to answer two questions about how this affects child wellbeing. Since most advocates of higher rates of incarceration suggest that short-term benefits in terms of crime reduction are the primary motivation for these increases in penal confinement, I decided to test the long-term effects of incarceration on crime by looking at the effects of paternal incarceration on childrens criminality, measured as physical aggression in young children. Results from these analyses (which were eventually published as Paternal Incarceration and Childrens Physically Aggressive Behaviors: Evidence from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study) provided a number of indications that mass imprisonment may be an inefficient crime-control solution in the long-term. First, although there were no discernible effects on girls paternal incarceration substantially increased the physical aggression of boys. Second, these effects were concentrated in the fastest- growing section of the prison populationnonviolent offenders who were also not abusive in their personal relationships. Taken together, these results suggest that by increasing the criminality of prisoners children, mass imprisonment might lay the foundation for a system in which crime and incarceration are passed down from fathers to sons.

Yet mass imprisonment is not important solely for its effects on crime, so I also investigated the effect of mass incarceration on racial inequalities in infant mortality, using both state-level data on infant mortality rates and individual-level data on infants who did and did not have a father incarcerated. Results from these analyses again highlighted the detrimental effect of parental incarceration on children and mass imprisonment on inequality among children, as they indicated that having a parent incarcerated increased the risk of infant mortality and that increases in state incarceration rates not only increased the total infant mortality rate but also the black-white disparity in the infant mortality. Since infant mortality is not only tragic but an excellent measure of the health of children in any given population, these findings present a stark reminder that mass imprisonment is likely highly detrimental for child wellbeing and inequality in such.

Bibliography: Wildeman, Christopher. 2010. Paternal Incarceration and Childrens Physically Aggressive Behaviors: Evidence from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. Social Forces 89:285-310.

Wildeman, Christopher. 2009. Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage. Demography 46:265-280.