Today, more than 10.2 million people are incarcerated around the world, and prison populations continue to grow on all continents.

For those who haven’t been affected by prison, this might seem unimportant. Often people’s reaction to discussions of prisoners is something like: Those people deserve to be there. Good riddance. This doesn’t affect me.

Disregarding the fact that far too many people are imprisoned for crimes they didn’t commit, many of the existing systems that put people behind bars raise human rights issues that affect society at large. When people are imprisoned, it’s not just the inmates who suffer the consequences. Their families are also punished and pushed towards poverty- a trend that continues into the next generation.

Bruce Western, a Harvard sociologist, says it best:

“Prison has become the new poverty trap.”

Much like the chicken and the egg, you can’t really say which comes first- poverty, or imprisonment. The reality is that it goes both ways- people who are poor are more likely to end up in prison, and families affected by imprisonment are more likely to remain or become poor. Either way, inmates and their families are screwed.

Here are 7 ways prison and poverty are connected. First up, how prison makes poverty worse:

1. Let’s start with the most obvious: when an income generating member of the family is incarcerated, the family loses that income.

This is especially problematic in poor, developing countries that lack public assistance programs for the poverty-stricken. The economic burden is further exacerbated for families who are expected to pay for a lawyer, pay for the imprisoned person’s food, and assume travel costs to visit the prison.

2. Once out of prison, it becomes incredibly difficult for former prisoners to find work.

A group of former inmates sell fresh produce at a farmer's market In Harlem, NYC through Fortune Society, a non-profit that offers education and career services to ex-inmates. | Image: Fortune Fresh

Imagine being out of the workforce for 5, 10, 15 years- how do you just jump back in, after missing out on years of experience? Furthermore, Princeton sociologist Bruce Western adds that "The increasingly violent and overcrowded state of prisons and jails is likely to produce certain attitudes, mannerisms, and behavioral practices that 'on the inside' function to enhance survival but are not compatible with success in the conventional job market."

Then, there’s the fact that in many countries former convicts are vulnerable to employment discrimination and marginalization, even if their offense was minor and from decades earlier. So even after you’ve paid your dues, there really is no fresh start. The United Nations reports that with few options available, ex-prisoners fall into “an endless cycle of poverty, marginalisation, criminality and imprisonment.”

3. Pursuing higher education is more difficult for people with criminal records

In the United States, for instance, nearly 60% of colleges screen applicants for criminal records, even when arrests didn’t result in convictions.

4. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to experience mental health issues, social behavior problems, limited education, marginalization, and financial hardship

According to the Osborne Association, there’s a misconception that children with parents in prison are more likely than their peers to end up in jail (there’s no evidence of this). So now, on top of all the other hurdles these kids are faced with, they have to deal with prejudice, distrust, and suspicion. Talk about being set up to fail. For these reasons, parental incarceration is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE), due to its combination of trauma, shame, and stigma.

Now lets look the other way...How poverty makes prison worse:

5. The systems that keep people poor are the same ones that cause more people in poverty to wind up in jail

Imagine this scenario: a woman parks illegally and receives a fine. However, she can’t afford the fine- so she misses its due date. The fine then doubles- now she really can’t afford it. She’s summoned to court to pay the outstanding fines, but she’s too afraid to come in, knowing she can’t afford them. She winds up in jail. This situation is all too familiar to residents of Ferguson, Missouri, USA. In 2013, the city with a population of 21,000 issued 33,000 arrest warrants for traffic violations and minor offenses (many were for people who lived outside of the city.)

6. Speaking of systems, here’s another: when people can’t support themselves financially, some feel forced to pursue other sources of income

The female section of Victoria Prison in Hong Kong, China | Image: Wikipedia Commons

Let’s get real. In the United States, the “land of opportunity” as some Americans like to say, an individual working 40 hours a week simply can’t get by on minimum wage. What happens when that person has to support children? Or a sick parent? What about in country's without a minimum wage?

Globally, 1.8 million people work in unregulated markets, also known as the informal marketplace (which notably, does not mean all of them are committing crimes in the traditional sense). In Sub Saharan Africa, nine out of ten rural and urban workers work informally. The reason is simple- the informal marketplace offers opportunities to people who would otherwise have none. But this kind of work also comes with serious risks, such as a lack of secure income, employment benefits, social protection, and in some cases, arrests.

7. People living in poverty are forced to make difficult decisions for the safety and survival of their families, that don’t always fall within the bounds of the law

There are many examples of this, but for me, undocumented immigrants come to mind. People migrate for all sorts of reasons- to escape conflict or violence, to seek out better health care, and, for a lot of people, to escape poverty. Undocumented immigrants don’t migrate just for the heck of it. They migrate because they feel they have no alternative. Migrating could very well mean the difference between being able to feed their children or not. It’s an impossible decision to make, but ultimately one that leads to millions of people in jails.

Here’s the bottom line: the systems that keep people poor are the same systems that lead to the incarceration of millions of people, which in turn creates an endless cycle of inequality, marginalization, and cross-generational poverty that’s virtually impossible to break.

To truly create an equitable society, we have to identify and change the systems that make people poor in the first place. I would argue that we also need to be honest about why we’re sending people to prisons (institutionalized racism?) and reconsider the mandatory minimum sentences.

Is our goal to punish, or to rehabilitate? I’ll go with the latter. And if that’s the case, we seriously need to rethink what we’re doing, because clearly- it isn’t working.


Demand Equity

7 ways prison and poverty screw over individuals and their families

By Christina Nuñez