The hidden costs of incarceration

Sociologist Hedwig Lee studies the consequences of imprisonment on families left behind.


The economic cost of incarceration is notoriously high — especially in the U.S., which has around 25% of the world’s prisoners. In addition to the approximately $80 billion spent annually on corrections in the U.S., nearly 2.2 million imprisoned citizens are unable to work and contribute to the economy. Yet, the toll that prisoners’ families must pay remains an often-overlooked cost, according to Hedwig (Hedy) Lee, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.  

In many cases, a male partner or spouse is the one sent to prison, depriving their family of a major wage earner, says Lee. People of color are also five times more likely to be incarcerated than white people. What this means, Lee notes, is that a financial burden is placed on the entire family, and often on families that can least afford it.

“Other family members who are left behind often have to shore up new economic resources, figure out how to take care of the kids, and maintain a relationship made more difficult by communication barriers,” said Lee. Shockingly, some estimates indicate that family members spend 9-26% of their total income paying for phone calls, visits, and care packages.

Further, Lee’s research shows that family members of prisoners are more likely to suffer from mental and physical health complications. Women who have a spouse arrested are more likely to experience depression, have reduced life satisfaction, and have a higher risk of heart disease, for example. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to have depression, anxiety, or PTSD, and to develop weight or heart problems later in life. Though increased financial burden is a major contributor, the emotional stress of suddenly losing a loved partner or parent also has harmful effects.

“I think we make this assumption that someone being incarcerated is automatically a bad parent,” Lee stressed, “and that is a problematic assumption because most kids are very much attached to their parent.” In addition, children may have actually witnessed their parent being taken away, can now only communicate with their parent face-to-face across a plexiglass window, and are often stigmatized in school, all of which contribute to distress and confusion.

According to Lee, there are both upstream and downstream determinants of incarceration and its consequences. Downstream determinants are factors such as growing up in an area that has fewer economic opportunities, higher crime rates, and poorer educational systems. Yet, what created this situation to begin with? According to Lee, historically, upstream racial and socioeconomic prejudices segregated those who had the least from the most.

“There were institutional and structural features in place that both created and maintained these socioeconomic inequalities. Slavery for example, lynching and Jim Crow laws that followed, and other forms of legal and nonlegal racial violence,” Lee stressed. “All of these factors impacted current life outcomes and one’s ultimate likelihood to have contact with a police officer.”

Of course, not all prisoners are people of color, and sometimes the wealthy are imprisoned, too. But the fact exists that disproportionately more poor and black citizens have contact with a criminal justice system. As Lee puts it, “Long-term imprisonment is something that is tangible for certain communities and invisible for other communities.” There is no erasing a history of upstream factors making this more likely for some than others, but Hedy believes that policies can be implemented to help address the more immediate downstream causes.

For example, in response to an overcrowded prison system that also burdens innocent family members, many legislatures are considering community-based sentencing rather than imprisonment for nonviolent offenders. Missouri, for example, is currently reviewing several proposed bills that could try to keep non-violent offenders who are also caregivers out of prison (Senate Bill 813, House Bill 1291, and House Bill 2216). Instead, someone may be put on parole and required to participate in community service.

When making decisions and developing future solutions, Lee cautions others to understand that, “criminal justice policy isn't just a policy about criminal justice; it’s also a health policy decision, a family policy decision, and an economic policy decision.”

 “Kids and moms shouldn't have to be doing time,” Lee said.