Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse

Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse

Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse

Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse


At no time in history, and certainly in no other democratic society, have prisons been filled so quickly and to such capacity than in the United States. And nowhere has this growth been more concentrated than in the disadvantaged--and primarily minority--neighborhoods of America's largest urban cities. In the most impoverished places, as much as 20% of the adult men are locked up on any given day, and there is hardly a family without a father, son, brother, or uncle who has not been behind bars.

While the effects of going to and returning home from prison are well-documented, little attention has been paid to the impact of removal on neighborhoods where large numbers of individuals have been imprisoned. In the first detailed, empirical exploration of the effects of mass incarceration on poor places, Imprisoning Communities demonstrates that in high doses incarceration contributes to the very social problems it is intended to solve: it breaks up family and social networks; deprives siblings, spouses, and parents of emotional and financial support; and threatens the economic and political infrastructure of already struggling neighborhoods. Especially at risk are children who, research shows, are more likely to commit a crime if a father or brother has been to prison. Clear makes the counterintuitive point that when incarceration concentrates at high levels, crime rates will go up. Removal, in other words, has exactly the opposite of its intended effect: it destabilizes the community, thus further reducing public safety.

Demonstrating that the current incarceration policy in urban America does more harm than good, from increasing crime to widening racial disparities and diminished life chances for youths, Todd Clear argues that we cannot overcome the problem of mass incarceration concentrated in poor places without incorporating an idea of community justice into our failing correctional and criminal justice systems.


By the mid-1980s, a few penologists, I among them, began to speculate that what had by that time become a 15-year prison population run-up was a trend that had to be nearing an end. We were alarmed at a prison population growth spinning out of control, and because we could find no rational explanation for the growth, unprecedented at that time, we came to the conclusion it was a politically spawned spurt that had about run its course. If you had told us then that the growth in imprisonment numbers was not even half finished, we would have been horrified at the prospect. A generation ago, nobody could have foreseen what was about to take place in U.S. penal policy for the next 35 years. What would have appalled us then to contemplate should appall us now to experience.

About that time, prominent criminologists were touting the crimeprevention potency of incarceration. Never mind that 15 years of prison population growth had been accompanied by 15 years of crime growth, a series of influential studies set an empirical foundation for the crimeprevention value of putting people behind bars. No less an august group than the National Academy of Sciences published a study of criminal careers suggesting that quite impressive suppression of crime might arise from incarcerating “high lambda offenders” (those who were heavily criminally active). Rand had just published Peter Greenwood’s conjecture that “selective incapacitation” could simultaneously prevent crime and reduce prison populations. Soon, the National Institute of Justice would widely distribute Edwin Zedlewski’s speculation that each new offender locked up prevented literally hundreds of crimes and saved enormous costs of crime. A fashionable theory developed that prisons were efficient crime suppressors. Yet the external validity of these claims was undermined by a fact that nobody seemed to pay much attention to: as prison populations were going up, so was the crime rate.

About that time I wrote a paper for a think-tank retreat (sponsored by the Vera Institute of Justice) entitled “Backfire: When Incarceration Increases Crime.” In that paper, I listed 10 ways that incarceration might . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.