Beyond Crime and Punishment: Prisons and Inequality

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In Beyond Crime and Punishment: Prisons and Inequality, authors Bruce Western and Becky Pettit (2002) argue that the expanded penal system in the United States exacerbates inequality, particularly for African Americans. Following incarceration, African Americans are at a greater disadvantage than they were before their prison sentence.

First, the authors cite usually high imprisonment rates among “disadvantaged” black men (41% of all black, male, high school dropouts, age 22-30) as being largely responsible for this trend (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 37). However, the authors also note that poorly educated men (particularly young, black, male, high school dropouts), were more likely to commit and be arrested for committing crimes (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 38). As such, the risk of being incarcerated was three times higher in this population than in other demographics (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 38). When unemployment rates factor in the inmate populations (generally excluded from reported statistics), the revised numbers show that a large number of black men are actually unemployed, and in far larger numbers than white men (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 41). However, additional factors also contribute to this phenomenon.

The authors also note that ex-inmates face poor economic prospects upon their release from prison (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 37). Ex-convicts are generally less ready for the job market, and face significant challenges when looking for work because of the stigma associated with a criminal record (particularly for jobs requiring special licensure) (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 41). One study cited in the text found that these former prisoners earned between 10 to 30 percent less than other workers who had not been to jail (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 42). Ex-convicts also reported difficulties in securing jobs with “career ladders or seniority pay,” and generally worked in lower-paying “day labor, or other casual jobs” (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 43). The combination of these factors makes looking for quality, well-paying jobs even more difficult for the ex-prisoners.

In contrast to Western and Pettit’s (2002) findings, researchers Massoglia et al. (2012) found that the effect from the penal system on former inmates was actually to the detriment of white ex-prisoners, and not necessarily the minority ones.

However, other studies differed from Massoglia et al.’s findings. One study concluded that “rising imprisonment” had increased racial inequality for minorities across the United States (Massoglia et al., 2012, p. 142). Yet another study cited in the text found that minority ex-inmates lived in the poorest and most disadvantaged neighborhoods following incarceration, particularly when compared to white ex-inmates (Massoglia et al., 2012, p. 142). Refuting these claims, Massoglia et al. (2012) argue that the findings of this study are inaccurate, as they do not take into consideration the living conditions of the white inmates prior to going to jail, as well as the level of decline from those conditions, making the findings strictly relative (p. 143). This is especially noteworthy because Massoglia et al. (2012) found that while many minorities typically lived in neighborhoods with higher poverty levels before prison, the white inmates did not (p. 143). Incarceration therefore resulted in “downward mobility” for white ex-convicts, as opposed to having a neutral effect on the minority ex-convicts (Massoglia et al., 2012, p. 142). This would imply that the prison bridged the gap between minority and white inmates, actually creating greater equality (instead of the opposite as previously suggested).

Just as one group of researchers differed from Western and Pettit’s (2002) findings, a second group of researchers and their study simply worked to collaborate it. These authors similarly examined the impact of being inside prison on an individual’s income following release.

A study conducted by Lyons and Pettit (2011) examined how the earning potential of an ex-convict was adversely affected following a prison sentence (p. 257). The researchers noted that white employees generally earn more than their black counterparts, even from their initial entry into the workforce (Lyons & Pettit, 2011, p. 257). Further, the researchers noted that the disparity between the two racial groups only widens over time, culminating in a significant different in median net worth by the age of 65 (Lyons & Pettit, 2011, p. 257). However, the study goes on to not only confirm that many ex-inmates face poor economic prospects upon their release from prison, but examines whether the impact is the same on all prisoners (Lyons & Pettit, 2011, p. 258). The findings of this portion of the study were particularly significant.

Lyons and Pettit (2011) concluded that white ex-convicts earn more than black ex-convicts. The study found that “black inmates still earn about 10 percent less than white inmates” (Lyons & Pettit, 2011, p. 273). Further, wages for black inmates grew at a “21 percent slower rate for black compared to white ex-inmates” (Lyons & Pettit, 2011, p. 273). The findings of this study would confirm Western and Pettit’s (2002) conclusions that the expanded penal system in the United States exacerbates inequality, particularly for African Americans.

The question remains whether a growing punitive trend in the United States creates additional issues for the poor, highlighting disparities between racial groups. The collective research regarding prisons and equality appears to confirm that the penal system does in fact worsen inequality. The Western and Pettit’s (2002) study found a growing number of “disadvantaged” black men were incarcerated in unprecedented numbers (p. 37). When factoring the inmate population into unemployment numbers, the inequality between this population and the rest of the workforce grew evident (Western & Pettit, 2002, p. 41). However, Massoglia et al.’s (2012) findings regarding the impact of incarceration on white prisoners may be dismissed as an anomaly because these prisoners simply have “more to lose” (p. 158). In reviewing the scenario as a whole, especially in comparing the post-incarceration earning potential of black ex-convicts with white ones, it is clear that the inequality grows exponentially following a prison sentence (Lyons & Pettit, 2011, p. 273). Therefore, now that the inequality has been identified, the only remaining issue is how to remedy it.


Lyons, C. J., & Pettit, B. (2011). Compounded disadvantage: Race, incarceration, and wage growth. Social Problems, 58(2), 257-280.

Massoglia, M., Firebaugh, G., & Warner, C. (2012). Racial variation in the effect of incarceration on neighborhood attainment. American Sociological Review, 78(1), 142-165.

Western, B., & Pettit, B. (2002). Beyond crime and punishment: Prisons and inequality. Contexts, 1(3), 37-43.