Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality

Publication Date: 
December 2013
Oxford University Press


Sara Wakefield
An unrelenting prison boom, marked by racial disparities, characterized the latter third of the twentieth century. Drawing upon broadly representative survey data and qualitative interviews, Children of the Prison Boom describes the devastating effects of America’s experiment in mass incarceration for a generation of vulnerable children. 

Parental imprisonment has transformed from an event affecting only the unluckiest of children-children of parents whose involvement in crime would have been quite serious-to one that is remarkably common, especially for black children. Even for high-risk youth, Children of the Prison Boom shows that paternal incarceration makes a bad situation worse, increasing mental health and behavioral problems, infant mortality, and child homelessness. These findings have broad implications for social inequality. Contrary to a great deal of research on the consequences of mass incarceration for inequality among adult men, these harms to children translate into large-scale increases in racial inequalities at the aggregate level. Parental imprisonment has become a distinctively American force for promoting intergenerational social inequality that should be placed alongside a decaying urban public school system and highly concentrated disadvantaged populations in urban centers as factors that distinctively touch-and disadvantage-poor black children.

More troubling, even if incarceration rates were reduced dramatically in the near future, the long-term harms of incarcerating marginalized men have yet to be fully revealed. Optimism about current reductions in the imprisonment rate and the resilience of children must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom-a lost generation now coming of age.