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Kimberly L. Alderman

excerpted from: Kimberly L. Alderman ,The Long Arm of the Law: Incarceration and the Ordinary Family. 55 Howard Law Journal 293 (Winter 2012) (61 footnotes omitted)


Incarceration rates in the United States have risen exponentially over the past three decades. While incarceration disproportionately affects racial minorities and men, no race, gender, or class is exempt from the ever-expanding reach of punitive law enforcement measures. Increasing criminal prosecution and incarceration rates are touching more and more ordinary families.

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In the last thirty years, incarceration rates in the United States have more than tripled. In 2007, the prison population peaked, with one in one hundred U.S. adults behind bars. Incarceration disproportionately affects minorities, men, and the poor, but no race, gender, or class can escape its increasing pervasiveness.

The exponential increase in incarceration is touching all ordinary families, not just minorities and the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Each of the 1.5 million incarcerated men in America is someone's father, brother, or son. Each of the 105,300 incarcerated women is someone's mother, sister, or daughter. Every year, more people have to deal with the emotional and practical consequences of having a close family member incarcerated.

When a family member is incarcerated, the family unit is disrupted. The state regulates all contact and familial support with incarcerated family members, thereby entering into the once-private family sphere. The incarcerated family member is unable to contribute financial support to his or her family, and the resources of the remaining family members are strained. Families must increasingly turn to public assistance, further involving the state in family affairs.

The ordinary family is further disrupted by the desocialization of the incarcerated family member from family life. Among parents, the unincarcerated caregiver must assume primary financial and emotional responsibility for children. Many primary caregivers must take on this additional responsibility while they simultaneously cope with the loss of a partner, creating feelings of abandonment and, ultimately, anger. Consequently, there is a high divorce rate among inmates and spouses, further splintering already challenged families.

A devastating domino effect results. Formerly incarcerated people are likely to become reincarcerated without the support of their families. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to become incarcerated themselves later in life as a direct result of separation from their incarcerated parent. More immediately, the children experience educational, behavioral, and emotional problems, and feelings of loss, anger, and embarrassment. These stressors prompt ordinary families to develop narratives to cope with and reconcile the disordered family structure and the invasion of the state into the once-private family life.