ITHACA, N. Y. — Shocking new research shows that 45 percent of adults in the U.S. have at least one immediate family member who has spent time in jail or prison, a figure far higher than previous estimates, according to a new, groundbreaking study.

Researchers from Cornell University say the findings — which claim to be the first to accurately show how many Americans have had a parent, grandparent, sibling, spouse, or child imprisoned — were almost double what they expected.

“The core takeaway is family member incarceration is even more common than any of us – all of whom are experts in the field – had anticipated,” says co-author Christopher Wildeman, professor of policy analysis and management in the College of Human Ecology at the university, in a release.

Of all family members, siblings were the most common immediate family member to be locked up.

The statistics were notably higher for African-Americans and those with low education levels, with figures closer to 60 percent for both groups. Even advantaged segments with the lowest percentages were still significant. The authors found that 15 percent of college-educated whites (about 1 in 7) have had immediate family members incarcerated at some point.

“That breaks pretty sharply from the standard narrative that we’ve heard in the research community and in popular discourse, about how white, college-educated folks are completely insulated from those risks,” says Wildeman. “And, indeed, this provides further evidence that mass incarceration is a profoundly American phenomenon and something that we as a society must confront together.”

Another surprising finding was the effect of education on different races. While having a higher education was linked to a lower likelihood of a family member imprisoned or jailed for whites, the same effect wasn’t found among African-Americans. Researchers say the chances an African-American who didn’t finish high school will have a family member behind bars is 70 percent, nearly identical to the 71 percent for African-Americans with a high school diploma. For those with a college degree, the number dipped to 55 percent.

“This really is an issue that affects all of society,” says lead author Peter Enns, associate professor of government in the school’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Having an immediate family member in prison instead of in the home can have a major effect on a person and can be extremely disruptive. … This survey really shows who the victims of mass incarceration are: the folks who have to manage households and grow up absent a loved one.”

Figures were gathered using a nationally representative survey of more than 4,000 people.

The study was published in the journal Socius.

About Ben Renner

Writer, editor, curator, and social media manager based in Denver, Colorado. View my writing at

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