Crime, Law, and the Community:
Dynamics of Incarceration in New York City
Random Family (LeBlanc 2003) tells the story of a tangled family and social network of young people in New York City in which prison threads through their lives since childhood. Early on, we meet a young man named Cesar, who sold small amounts of crack and heroin in the streets near his home in the Bronx. During one of his many spells in jail, Cesar sees his father pushing a cafeteria cart in the Rikers Island Correctional Facility, New York City's jail. Cesar had not seen his father in many years, but he was not very surprised to see him there. This was neither Cesar's first time at Rikers, nor his first time in jail, and the same was true of his father. Cesar was at Rikers awaiting transfer to a prison in upstate New York, one of several prison spells he would face within his first three decades of life. In addition to seeing his father in jail, Cesar often encountered childhood friends from his Bronx neighborhood as he moved through the state's prisons.
Cesar, his parents and siblings, other family members, his friends, and the women with whom Cesar had children formed a thick social network that shaped the choices, opportunities, and relationships in their lives. Their social mobility, economic choices, and emotional ties were sharply circumscribed by these networks. Prison and jail were routine features of their lives and a nexus of the complex relationships that now spans generations. Although Cesar encountered his father in jail after many years of estrangement, Cesar often saw several of his children and their mothers while in prisons.
This story has been replicated tens of thousands of times in American cities since 1980 (Tonry 1995; Blumstein and Beck 1999; Mauer 2000). The social concentration of incarceration among young, poor minority males is a well-known criminological fact and a feature of contemporary American prisons (Tonry and Petersilia 1999; Bonzcar and Beck 1997). But Cesar's story represents a turn in the persistent story of racial disproportionality and social concentration of imprisonment. The increasing social embedment of both direct and vicarious prison experiences has