The New York Times' house libertarian, John Tierney, has written a detailed story on the ways mass incarceration intensifies poverty and other social problems. Here's an excerpt:
The shift to tougher penal policies three decades ago was originally credited with helping people in poor neighborhoods by reducing crime. But now that America's incarceration rate has risen to be the world's highest, many social scientists find the social benefits to be far outweighed by the costs to those communities….
Epidemiologists have found that when the incarceration rate rises in a county, there tends to be a subsequent increase in the rates of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancy, possibly because women have less power to require their partners to practice protected sex or remain monogamous.
When researchers try to explain why AIDS is much more prevalent among blacks than whites, they point to the consequences of incarceration, which disrupts steady relationships and can lead to high-risk sexual behavior. When sociologists look for causes of child poverty and juvenile delinquency, they link these problems to the incarceration of parents and the resulting economic and emotional strains on families.
Some families, of course, benefit after an abusive parent or spouse is locked up. But Christopher Wildeman, a Yale sociologist, has found that children are generally more likely to suffer academically and socially after the incarceration of a parent. Boys left fatherless become more physically aggressive. Spouses of prisoners become more prone to depression and other mental and physical problems.
"Education, income, housing, health — incarceration affects everyone and everything in the nation's low-income neighborhoods," said Megan Comfort, a sociologist at the nonprofit research organization RTI International who has analyzed what she calls the "secondary prisonization" of women with partners serving time in San Quentin State Prison.
The most interesting point in the piece may be the possibility that prison actually increases crime once the incarceration rate reaches a high enough level. "Robert DeFina and Lance Hannon, both at Villanova University, have found that while crime may initially decline in places that lock up more people, within a few years the rate rebounds and is even higher than before," Tierney writes. "New York City's continuing drop in crime in the past two decades may have occurred partly because it reduced its prison population in the 1990s and thereby avoided a subsequent rebound effect."