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The Impact of Incarceration in the African American Family Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 29th, 2021


Historically, families have been and continue to be essential to the socialization and growth of people of African descent whereby it has been regarded as a tradition and moral obligation to marry and have children. The institution of marriage has been respected and family values protected. Ever since emancipation, the prison population in the United States is composed in its majority of African-American men and women. Those incarcerated have been a part of the society in either of the forms that include fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, perhaps the head of a household, or active members in their communities. The incarceration causes a lot of disorganization of families and to some extent leading to the suffering of dependants.

The authorities have turned a blind eye to the harm they cause to such families and the impact they have on society. The matter is even made worse considering that most of the incarcerated are African Americans who suffer from unemployment and economical alienation. As cited by Harris & Miller (2003 p.3) it has been named the race to incarceration where many blacks are being arrested for suspicion or conviction of a crime. The family is one social aspect that should be sustained and preserved since it enables a bright future for the offspring’s hence a bright society.

The high rate of incarceration of African Americans has had its impacts on the social, economic, and bonding of African American families. This research paper will explore the history and social functions of prisons in the United States in order to establish how the incarceration of men and women of African descent impact black families in society. It gives the statistics that are involved and explores the injustice of the justice system. The impacts of the families in terms of social, economic, physical and emotional are clearly detailed. The solutions are given including probation and parole and less and strict sentences for family men.

Theoretical Framework and Methodology

Justice is core to any society, and no impunity should be tolerated in any way. However, the justice system should not favor in any way anyone due to his race, class, or gender. The ‘race to incarceration’ describes how more African Americans are sent to prison just for suspicions or conviction of a crime. Law enforcement officers have all the legal backing and powers to prosecute the suspected offenders while the judicial system has the powers to detain the convicted persons. These systems of justice have been working against race and many African Americans find their way to detention centers than the whites and Hispanics.

These detention centers, penitentiaries, or collection facilities act as the tool that alienates the African American families, creating a negative impact on the families. This race to incarceration is the perfect example of the racism effect in the US systems as more of the African Americans are detained. The impact of this is adversity to the family, especially where the detainee has been the sole winner of bread in the family. The family values should be respected by all and better measures should be exercised to avoid the setup being broken by any means. The function of prisons is to act as correction centers and not as detainment centers (Harrison & Beck, 2006 para.5). The wrongdoer should be made to realize and correct his/her mistakes with the least impact on society. However, in genuine cases of unlawfulness where social welfare is at risk, deterrent measures should be taken not only to the black but also to all people regardless of their diversity affiliation.

The psychological and physical torture that the blacks have been going through is unjustified especially considering that they have always been branded as thieves and crime committers without empirical backing. Another factor is the economic hardships facing the African Americans where the majority of them are poor making them end up committing crimes. The prisons only solve the problem of crime temporarily since they don’t establish fallback structures and when the detention time is over, the detainees don’t have any other place to return to but to crime. Coupled with other social problems like unemployment, crime should be addressed in long term and not in the short term. This research uses secondary sources to establish how the incarceration of African Americans impacts Black families in society. This will give the best basis of published data and information which is reliable to review trends and evidence of the effects of detention on the black families in society. Books, journals, published research papers and published articles will be used so as to show the impacts that incarceration has on society.

Historiography and Historical Context

The history of African Americans can be described as very hostile and can be related to the caste system of India. Blacks are regarded as the outcasts while the whites enjoy the goodness of the land. According to Walmsley (2006, para.1), the US has the highest prison population rate in the whole world such that for every 100,000 citizens there are 738 in prison. The report further indicates that of the approximate 9.25 million persons held in pre-detainees (remand) penal institutions in the globe, approximately half are found in the US which is a figure of approximately 2.19 million.

These statistics tend to indicate how ineffective the judicial systems are. The report of ‘New Incarceration Figures Thirty-Three Consecutive Years of Growth’ (para.5) indicates that despite falling crime rates, the incarceration rates have continued to rise. It gives shocking statistics of the rise of female cases on the rise which has doubled in figures as most females are incarcerated due to drugs. Another shocking statistic is the aging of prisoners which indicates that out of every 23 prisoners 1 is 55 years or above. This can bring us to the very impact of separation from family life. If such prisoners had families then their spouses have already lost hope in the return and may have turned to other socially immoral life (Slevin para.5).

The figures indicate that African Americans males are detained six times more than whites and Hispanic males whereby each day a male aged 25-29 is incarcerated. As for females, the blacks are incarcerated four times the rate of white and Hispanic and the number of African Americans incarcerated presently has increased more than nine times compared to the figures reported in 1954.

States are also involved in the disparities, for instance, states like Iowa, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota incarcerate African Americans at 10 times more than the Whites and Hispanics (Roberts 2004 p.2) – these are extraordinary and disproportionate arrests. As cited by Harrison (1997 in Harris & Miller, 2003) approximately half of the men currently incarcerated are fathers, meaning that there are children left destitute outside the prisons. These children are growing fatherless and society is increasingly witnessing such occurrences. Ofari (2001 para.7) describes the events of arresting blacks as a scapegoat especially in the war on drugs where random vehicle checks and marginal legal searches are done more on blacks than whites. He continues to put the media in the spotlight for misleading information against blacks who are described as criminals and resistors. 10% of all males in prisons are black, a figure that is three times higher than that of Hispanics and Latino males (Ofari para.3). According to Western & McLanahan (2000), close to 20% of males in state prison are married which translates to approximately 260,000 couples who were separated due to incarceration in 1998.

Further, 56% of the inmates have children less than 18 years according to Mauer (1999) and the American system has 49% of African American prison inmates nationally compared to the whites makeup 13%. Moreover, approximately one in three black males aged 20-29 years is involved in some criminal activities, one in fourteen African Americans males was in prison or jail daily and an African American born in 1991 has a high chance of spending time incarcerated at some point in his life rated at 29% while those for whites are 4% and 16% for Hispanics.

The impacts

The immediate and extended family of the incarcerated person is always disturbed psychologically, physically and emotionally due to loss of social connection. In addition, since this family is a member of society, the effect they experience also destabilizes society. The incarceration of blacks who have families has dire impacts not only on those left behind but also on the ones incarcerated. When the blacks get to detention, they leave behind innocent families that have been dependent on them all along thus both parties get affected psychologically and emotionally especially when the detainees are described as loners, social misfits and socially separated. When they come back from prisons, they feel rejected and less worthy hence retreat to forming other families rather than returning to the ones they left behind – the impact being more social stress and disorganization. The result is the breakage of many families and many children are brought up in single-parent conditions. The problems that are faced by the spouse can be categorized into three main problems that include financial and material, personal feelings of isolation, and problems of children management. Incarceration has left havoc in the African American families and has made children be raised in impoverished single female-led homesteads. This cycle of social alienation continues with the children being likely to be prone to poor living conditions, crime, and lack of family values.

This increased rate of incarceration increases the health risk and costs of African Americans because many are released having chronic medical conditions. The impacts of jailing the blacks are adding insult to an already downtrodden society that is already suffering from a poor education system, unemployment, and poverty, thus when they come out of prisons they are already hardened criminals and returning to their families is not their priority but they choose guns, gangs, crime and drugs as their passion.

This leaves society and the family with no options but to struggle in poverty. King, (1999) in his report ‘African American females’ attitude towards marriage an exploratory study’ explains the imbalance between the availability of men for marriage due to sex ratio. The impacts of unequal sex ratios are worse than lower marriage rates. When the men are low in supply they are scarce hence they tend to be the leading emotional power in a relationship; they don’t do anything towards holding the relationship together since they can easily start an alternative relationship. This type of society will encourage self-reliance in women leading to higher divorce rates, single parenthood, and out-of-wedlock births (Dickson, 1993). According to King (1999), the ratio is approximately 85 men for every a hundred women and the rate of unmarried women is said to have risen to 36% in1994 from a 17.4% in 1970.

The declines in marriage rates have the effects of loss of family values, out-of-wedlock births which are seen by single-parent families and child poverty. The effects of single parenting have been found to be chronic stress, especially among poor black women thus affecting their well-being. Marriage has been found to have emotional, psychological, and physical well-being benefits for adults (Kings, 1999) such as happier, healthier and less stressful persons. There is reported lower alcoholism, suicide, morbidity, and mortality rates in married couples compared to single parents. All these benefits translate to better families and well-coordinated societies.

Marriage gives the children whether male or female the opportunity to learn the basics of family values. It also gives them a chance to learn the art of intimate, mutually respectful, and supportive relationships with the opposite gender. Children who grow in single-parent homes have very limited time to learn such values and roles which may be a detriment factor in social development. The families that are affected in such ways include those who are left by their parents due to incarceration. Marriages are effective in providing children with a chance to be fathered and in this case, men will never perform their fatherly role as long as they are beyond the reach of their children.

Children who grow in these kinds of settings are affected negatively emotionally, socially, psychologically and economically (Kings 1999) as the incarceration leads to loss of contact not only by the spouses but also by the whole family and society. The effect of this is the surge in the cases of divorces both during and after incarceration. Some of the spouses regard the other as social misfits and convicts hence don’t want to be associated with them. This leads to a negative impact on the life of the children, and the spouse who has been alienated may result in other solutions like crime or suicide.

Incarceration removes the blacks from employment reducing the household economic budget and thus creating negative effects (including economic, social and emotional) to the family that is left behind. Since the whites are advantaged the gap between them and the black Americans tends to widen further leading to escalation of poverty levels among the black community. Indeed, one-third of blacks live below the poverty line while just a small portion of white (9%) live below the poverty line. Whites are also more likely to get employed; these disparities play a huge role in the negative impacts especially when a spouse is detained or sentenced.

The effect of the escalating cases of poverty among black Americans is the degeneration of social immorality whereby women may turn to engage in prostitution while men may hind in the realms of drugs or crime to make ends meet. When a female spouse is detained and the male indulges in crime and is caught then the child is left without guardians. Such a child is more likely to turn to delinquency which may lead to detention and thus a total breakdown of a family setup.

On the effect to the extended family, the most immediate impact is the feeling of stigma from the general society which may lead to isolation and punishment (Harris & Miller, 2003). The wives of the man who is incarcerated may be neglected by the extended family which will lead to hatred amongst the family. Spouses also experience sexual loneliness and frustration from the void of the incarcerated partner. This may lead to remarrying or promiscuity. If they remarry, the child can be emotionally disturbed especially where he/she may disapprove of such a new family setup or may be subjected to ill-treatment by the new party in the family. This leads to loss of personal privacy and abandonment where a secret life is turned into a public affair and everyone in society will be curious and the affair would be under a lot of public scrutinies. This brings frustration and shame to the family and a damaged reputation in society, with the children being mainly affected by this effect. They are unable to face the public at any time hence become socially isolated from the rest. The most likely course of action is to turn to social crimes in order to get relief from social isolation.

On the effects to children, statistics show that more than 1.5 million children have a parent in prison or jail mostly the young and approximately 43% are below seven years (Harris & Miller, 2003). Due to a lack of proper explanation to the children about the developments that have taken place, deception becomes the option in explaining the whereabouts of the other parent. This deception is harmful in the long run as most studies show that the child gets more confused and upset compared to when they are told the truth. Once the truth is uncovered by the child then the trust is broken and cases of disobedience, temper outbursts, and also destructive delinquent behavior may be seen. This may even cause children to feel guilty and psychologically tortured especially during their developmental stages. Most studies show that most of the children with incarcerated parents experience disciplinary problems at school and a decline in academic performance.

The change of the penal system in the last decades has made the emergence of a key suspect to explain the rise of cases of single-parent families in poor societies. Incarceration is deterred family formation directly whereby it makes it close to impossible for a father-children relationship to exist. In addition, it may have an indirect effect such that it makes employment and earnings capacity of the father incapacitated hence poor living standard for the child. All these factors lead to bad situations in marriage and family formation (Western & McLanahan, 2000). According to Cready, Fossett & Kiecolt, (1997) family structures have changed immensely in the last decades especially in declining marriage trends, husband and wife families, and percentage of marital births.

According to Grinstead, Faigeles, Bancroft & Zack (n.d.) for every male who is incarcerated, there are children and women who suffer socially, psychologically and financially. The families have other burdens of visitations and contacts with the inmate, which are stressful and stigmatizing for the family. There is also the financial cost of visiting while women who continue keeping in contact with inmates have been found to face emotional and social challenges. People mainly spend a lot of cash in visitations with regular visits amounting to approximately $168, phone calls amounting to $85, while mailed packages and other visits totaling to $27 and $18 respectively in expenditure for low-income earner visitors. These figures are to be added to the general expenditure of the family which is a result of incarceration.

The incarceration has led to an impossibility of blacks establishing long-term relationships leading to lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates, higher separation rates, and lower remarriage rates. It has also led to the loss of marriage values in terms of the holy matrimony that was the intention to bear children (Dickson, 1993). The impacts are not only to the families left behind but also to the ones incarcerated who feeldistressed and lonely at all times. Life in prison to others is unbearable and they result in stress and depression (Clark, 1999). The solutions to such injustices should be urgent and long-lasting measures.


Any solution that is to be given must be driven towards the long-term elimination or reduction of incarceration since it impacts negatively on all families whether black, whites, or Hispanic. The problems of incarceration seem like cancer that persists at all times. The impacts of this incarceration on the families left behind are limitless. Carl Marx in his theory explained the vicious cycle of poverty which is related to what the black Americans experience. To break this cycle, we require strategic planning to economically enable the blacks with the primary goal being to eliminate what makes them engage in crime.

Although the media has tainted the image of African Americans as naturally criminals, the truth is that there is racism behind the incarcerations. Racism should be fought at all costs since many blacks find their way to jails while more whites too could be in jail. The worst of it is that many are just held of suspicion of a crime thus being forced to live the family. Most of the black communities are poor and uneducated and most find it difficult to get jobs to sustain their needs and those of their families. The strategy would be to eliminate poverty and unemployment within the society so that many blacks can find life easy and not engage in crime, gangs, and drugs.

The court system has also contributed to the high incarceration and the long-term incarceration. It offers long jail terms and repeats terms for those convicted twice thus giving the family a longer waiting time for their family members. The best option would be probations where the prisoner will be out and will still be close to his family so that he can offer parental guidance to the children. Another way is for those who are convicted to be granted parole (Free, 1997) where they give their word of honor that they are going to change their ways hence they are released from jail conditionally. The family men can be also considered so as to give them fewer periods of prison sentences or imprisonment near the family areas where they will incur less expense on visitation.

Those convicted on probation should be subject to the law and may be returned to prison when they fail to keep their word. This is a short-term measure since even if the person gets out of prison and has no income or employment then he has to indulge in crime. The best would be to empower the people by educating them and offering them an equal chance to be employed like the whites. Racism should be a practice of the primitive and there should be no judgment according to color but according to the character. The families of those already affected should be compensated and such children receive the much attention they need in terms of education and basic needs.


Protection of the family should be a priority of any government since the family is the unit that holds people together in love, harmony and unity. The family unit enables society to develop good values and enables children to grow up in an environment that instills discipline and responsibility. The negative impacts suffered by the families of the African Americans are immense since the incarceration is really high. Such families will continue to struggle at all times since the government is contributing to the vicious cycle of poverty, irresponsibility, racism, and crime. Unless the government takes the steps to eliminate this high black incarceration then the rates will keep on increasing hence leading to a social collapse due to the social, emotional, economic, and physical damage caused by the incarceration.

Works Cited

Clark, Theresa A. “The Relationship between Inmate Visitation and Behavior: Implications or African American Families.” Journal of African American Men, pp.43-58. 1999.

Cready, Cynthia M., Fossett, Mark A., & Kiecolt, Jill K. “Mate Availability and African American Family Structure in the U. S. Non-metropolitan South, 1960-1990.” Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 59, No. 1, pp. 192-203. 1997.

Dickson, Lynda. “The Future of Marriage and Family in Black America.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 23, No. 4, pp. 472-491.1993.

Free, Marvin D. “The Impact of Federal Sentencing Reforms on African Americans.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 28, No. 2, pp. 268-286. 1997.

Grinstead, Olga, et al. “The Financial Cost of Maintaining Relationships with Incarcerated African American Men: A Survey of Women Prison Visitors.” Journal of African American Men, pp. 60-70.

Harris, Othello & Miller, Robin R. . New Jersey, Transaction Publishers. 2003.

Harrison, Paige M. & Beck, Allen J. . U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. 2006.

King, Anthony E.O. “African American Females’ Attitudes toward Marriage: An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, pp. 416-437. 1999.

Mauer, Marc. “The Crisis of the Young African American Male and the Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Washington, D.C.1999.

“New Incarceration Figures: Thirty-Three Consecutive Years of Growth”. Sentencing Project. 2006. Web.

Ofari, Earl. “No Slowdown in prison boom for blacks.” The New York Amsterdam News, pp.13. 2001.

Roberts, Dorothy E. “The Social and Moral Cost of Mass Incarceration in African American communities.” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 56, pp. 1272-2003.

Slevin, Peter. U.S. “Prison Study Faults System and the Public.” The Washington Post. Thursday,2006. Web.

Walmsley, Roy. “World Prison Population List.” International Centre for Prison Studies. King’s College London. 2007. Web.

Western, Bruce & McLanahan, Sara. “Fathers Behind Bars: The Impact of Incarceration on Family Formation.” Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Working Paper #00-08 Princeton University, 2000.

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