Editor’s note: In Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power: The Case for Reparations for Mass Incarceration (2022), sociologist Tasseli McKay offers a “cradle-to-grave accounting” of mass incarceration’s harms by tallying its social and economic costs. McKay finds that “the damages that can be reasonably estimated from current evidence total a staggering $13.19 trillion”—a figure comparable to the total value of the US’ Black-White racial wealth gap. The following excerpt focuses on the ways the carceral system harms poor and working-class women of color—especially Black women—caring for incarcerated loved ones. A condensed version of the text has been edited for republication, with permission from University of California Press.
On any given day, thousands of women leave homes across America and enter prison voluntarily. They furnish their own transport, often traveling for hours on public trains and buses. They clothe themselves and their children according to the correctional dress code, submitting to searches of their bodies and belongings and myriad forms of intimate regulation and humiliation. To refer to these mothers, grandmothers, partners, and co-parents of the imprisoned as “visitors” is to miss most of what is happening as they circulate in and out of prison facilities en masse. Their movements comprise what the scholars and activists of the Essie Justice Group aptly describe as “another Great Migration.”1 They have wrapped their lives around the prisons that hold their loved ones, navigating a uniquely mobile, but still punishing, form of confinement.
Unexpected evidence of this comes from demographer Christopher Wildeman’s rigorous investigation of the population-level health consequences of mass incarceration. Wildeman examined the relationship between changes in the national imprisonment rate and changes in American life expectancy, a central indicator of overall population health. He uncovered an apparent paradox: Increases in the male incarceration rate have depressed women’s life expectancy more than they have men’s.13
Adding Up the Invisible Burden
Like the labor of prisoners themselves, the uncompensated work that women perform in service of their incarcerated loved ones’ survival and well-being is both invisible and necessary to the carceral project.
Women’s labor on behalf of their incarcerated loved ones is free to the state, but it comes at high personal cost to women themselves. The narratives of Multi-site Family Study participants, read alongside prior research on women’s experiences with family member imprisonment, help us make sense of the gender paradox observed in population-scale studies of incarceration’s collateral consequences. In the context of heteropatriarchal norms that shift men’s social and material burdens to their female partners and family members, mass incarceration extracts labor and material resources from poor women—particularly women of color—that they can scarcely afford to spare. As Beth Richie argues, “Against the backdrop of divestment of basic services in low-income neighborhoods and mass incarceration, women of color are now burdened in ways that have untold costs and consequences.”50 Like the labor of prisoners themselves, the uncompensated work that women perform in service of their incarcerated loved ones’ survival and well-being is both invisible and necessary to the hypercarceral project.
Valuing and compensating women’s work on behalf of loved ones affected by incarceration will be an especially pivotal task in the coming period of decarceration. Qualitative research suggests that female family members provide extensive case management, mental health care, housing, job searches, and transportation assistance on behalf of their incarcerated and reentering loved ones, as well as laboring to keep them out of trouble with police and parole officers.
Existing data do not allow us to quantify the full magnitude of the burdens that women absorb.
Nevertheless, available evidence does support initial, conservative estimates of some of these costs and harms. First, focusing solely on the prisoners who do receive visits, female family members expend roughly $5,594.16 per year (in inflation-adjusted dollars) to maintain communications with the prisoner, including visits, telephone calls, and mail. Therefore, over the four focal decades of the mass incarceration period, the adult family members of prisoners (predominantly women) have expended at least $104 billion ($104,044,278,074) to maintain contact with incarcerated loved ones. The racial composition of American prison populations during the focal four-decade period suggests that at least $39.5 billion ($39,536,825,668) of these expenditures were made on behalf of Black prisoners.53
Second, to create a lower-bound estimate for the intensive reintegrative support that many women provide for family members returning from prison, we can draw on cost estimates associated with providing professional case management for returning prisoners. The Maryland Reentry Partnership Initiative offers a useful model for understanding the cost of delivering case management services to a general population of returning prisoners—those who might be most comparable to individuals receiving informal, uncompensated reentry support from their partners, coparents, mothers, and other relatives. The average annualized cost of these services per participant in the very limited jurisdictions that offer them was $6,900 in 2004 dollars54 or $9,505 in 2020 dollars. Summing the annual number of individuals released from United States prisons for the years 1978 to 2018 indicates that 20,459,069 releases from prison occurred during this period.55 Assuming conservatively that each prison release event necessitated the equivalent of the light-touch forms of reentry support delivered by the Maryland initiative from family members, the inflation-adjusted value of this labor would be about $194 billion ($194,463,450,845). Of this figure, roughly $73.9 billion ($73,896,111,321) of this labor value has been expended on behalf of Black reentrants.
Finally, we can create a partial estimate of the impacts of these burdens on women’s health. Many of the health impacts that women appear to sustain during and after a family member’s incarceration, such as diabetes and HIV, have not yet been studied in ways that enable us to isolate the excess incidence among women that is associated with the racially targeted incarceration of their family members. But Lee and colleagues’ nationally representative estimates suggest that family member incarceration (in jail or prison) more than doubles women’s risk of a heart attack or stroke (odds ratio = 2.53).56 This burden lands disproportionately on Black women. Results from another nationally representative study, the FamHIS survey, indicate that 64 percent of Black women have had a family member incarcerated in jail or prison, compared to 46 percent of white women.57
Extrapolating the FamHIS estimates to population data collected by the United States Census Bureau suggests that 9,964,906 adult Black women and 51,533,810 adult non-Black women alive today have experienced family member incarceration. I estimate that this experience is associated with a total of 9,040,311 excess incidents of heart attack or stroke, including 1,464,841 excess incidents sustained by Black women. The health care costs and lost productivity precipitated by a typical cardiovascular event are estimated at $213,333.58 We can, therefore, expect that adult women alive today have sustained approximately $1.93 trillion ($1,928,596,666,563) in monetizable damages from the cardiovascular burden of family-member incarceration, $312 billion ($312,498,925,053) of which have been borne by Black women. The incarceration of a partner or coparent also increases women’s risk of behavioral health problems, including major depression. Nationally, the twelve-month prevalence of major depressive episodes among women is 11.1 percent, and the prevalence of partner incarceration among adult women in the United States is 14 percent.59 Using Wildeman and colleagues’ figures for the increased odds of a major depressive episode among women who have experienced the incarceration of their children’s father,60 I estimate that American women alive today have likely experienced approximately 488,559 major depressive episodes associated with the incarceration of a partner or coparent. The average economic burden associated with a major depression event, including both health care costs and productivity losses, is $82,157 (converted by the author to inflation-adjusted US dollars).61 The combined cost of such events is roughly $40.1 billion ($40,138,541,763). Of these costs, at least $7.7 billion ($7,695,892,661) are associated with partner incarceration-related depression episodes among Black women.
Repaying the resources that have been extracted from Black women under the current punishment regime and compensating women for damages to their health and well-being are a critical part of bringing the age of mass incarceration to a close.
Estimating the costs to women of family member incarceration necessarily involves imprecision. But my particular estimates make a set of conservative assumptions and necessary omissions (where underlying data are incomplete or insufficiently rigorous). The likely net result of these assumptions and omissions is that the sums presented here are much lower than the actual price that women pay.
Repairing Harm to Partners and Parents
The private subsidies and uncompensated labor extracted from prisoners’ family members have not only supported present and former prisoners themselves. They have subsidized an otherwise untenably overblown carceral project. And they have compensated for the shortcomings of the public services and systems that fail to support people returning from prison. The unwieldiness of the burden carried by prisoners’ family members, overwhelmingly poor women of color, highlights two urgent policy tasks: making individual restitution to them as victims of the political violence of mass incarceration and developing an adequate public safety net that does not depend on women’s costly invisible labor.
Institution-building reparations that end public cost-shifting to all poor and working-class women should accompany individual reparations to affected Black women.
Repaying the resources that have been extracted from Black women under the current punishment regime and compensating women for damages to their health and well-being are a critical part of bringing the age of mass incarceration to a close. Black women have been especially harmed by the racially targeted use of mass incarceration as a tactic of political violence against their communities. They are owed individual restitution. The calculable portion of women’s economic losses associated with the mass imprisonment of Black men (estimated in the preceding section of this chapter at $434 billion) would ideally be returned to them in ways that are not simply appropriated to the care of other vulnerable individuals—individuals whose care must be made a public and collective priority instead. To ensure that women of color themselves reap the benefit of restitution, trust funds could be established for affected women, with the annual interest accessible for any purpose the recipient desires and the nontransferable principal value of the fund available for covering women’s major costs of living on retirement or other exit from income-generating work (such as the birth of a child or the advent of a disability). Some portion of women’s reparative entitlements might also be invested in individual health care spending accounts to be used for the care of the recipient’s own physical and mental health and well-being.
Institution-building reparations that end public cost-shifting to all poor and working-class women should accompany individual reparations to affected Black women. Fundamental transformation of public safety, correctional, and human services systems is needed—eliminating the coercive use of women’s uncompensated, private labor to fulfill essential public functions. Law enforcement practices that oversurveil and underprotect poor communities of color deputize women to keep men “out of trouble” while failing to support women’s safety. They must be radically remade.
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The mass-scale correctional systems of the current era are wholly unsustainable without gendered labor exploitation.
The powerful roles that individual women—and the strong neighborhood social networks primarily maintained by women—have long played in preventing violence and injury should be reimagined as appropriately remunerated work. Women who have played these informal, unpaid roles during the mass incarceration era, particularly poor women of color, transgender women, and those living in hyperincarcerated communities, must be kept at the forefront of efforts to design new public safety and first-response systems operated by and for their communities.62 Through the long-standing national leadership of Critical Resistance, founded in 1997, a host of potential alternatives to incarceration have been developed and tested across the United States, including the Harm Free Zone communities and other grassroots work. Large-scale public investment from all levels of government is needed to further implement and evaluate these strategies.
The mass-scale correctional systems of the current era are wholly unsustainable without gendered labor exploitation. Women have been unjustly burdened with a set of near-impossible tasks: sustaining men’s physical and mental health under brutal conditions of deprivation and violent control; maintaining family relationships in the context of intensive contact restrictions, communication surveillance, long travel distances, unreasonable costs, and formidable logistical barriers; fulfilling the crushing array of private and state-imposed financial obligations left behind when men are forcibly removed; and providing intensive reintegration support when they are redeposited, empty-handed, in their communities. Given that current levels of correctional expenditure are already widely regarded as untenable and unsustainable by the state governments that fund them,63 it is extremely difficult to envision how our current correctional systems could be made to operate humanely without massive underwriting from poor women. They should be eliminated.
Robust public investments in community behavioral health services are critical to enable the safe dismantling of correctional systems and to unburden poor women from the work that such systems impose on them. Significant public investment in residential treatment services represents an essential component of successful systems transformation. Smaller scale, trauma-informed, restorative forms of residential care (including involuntary commitment for those whose behavioral health issues put others or themselves in danger) will be key in the new behavioral health infrastructure. Broadening the availability of no-cost, intensive outpatient and residential mental health and substance abuse treatment services is also crucial for supporting women’s recovery from the behavioral health damage that mass incarceration has wrought.
To help meet the burgeoning need for behavioral health services that respond to clients’ cultural contexts and life experiences, specialized student loan repayment programs should be developed to support those who have frontline experience with mass incarceration (including women who have been criminalized themselves and those who have supported incarcerated loved ones) in designing and delivering next-generation mental health care and addiction treatment. The Federally Qualified Health Center primary care model could be adapted to make such services widely, freely, and locally available in urban communities that have been targeted for mass incarceration. These same communities will serve as the front lines for the massive project of decarceration, and they urgently need public infrastructures to support healthy integration for former prisoners.
The long-awaited transition from an era of mass incarceration to one of mass decarceration will be socially and economically disastrous for women if an inadequate social safety net and community-based supports for returning prisoners are not addressed. We must begin to replace the vast architecture of private supports that women construct around their loved ones with a robust health and human services infrastructure capable of supporting the needs of all families. Modeling such systems on the needs and visions of those who have been affected by mass incarceration will help to ensure that they effectively serve the vulnerable and marginalized more broadly.
Institution-building investments would also help to shift the burden of supporting community reintegration for ex-prisoners away from struggling family members and back onto the public systems responsible for removing people from families and communities in the first place. Basic social welfare programs must be expanded or restored to meet the long-term needs of poor and working-class women (disproportionately women of color) in the context of the tremendous caring responsibilities that they shoulder. The overriding, intensive focus of contemporary Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) “workfare” policies on pushing poor mothers into low-wage shiftwork is incompatible with the heavy demands of their uncompensated care work. Federal intervention to broaden the availability of free childcare for low-income families could help bring economic stability within reach for more women and families. So could federal and local initiatives to address the urgent need for safe, affordable housing in urban communities.
A basic guaranteed income program could radically strengthen and streamline the social safety net while eliminating the need for poor women’s administrative labor to access support for themselves and their loved ones.
The unwieldy and surveillance-oriented process of qualifying for and accessing benefits from public programs adds to the invisible labor that poor women undertake on behalf of returning prisoners and their children. To alleviate the burdens of unpaid casework that fall on female family members of current and former prisoners, benefits eligibility and receipt must be streamlined. Cost-effective and viable strategies for modernizing the enrollment and delivery of benefits (like food stamps) exist but were largely halted under the Trump administration, based on unsubstantiated claims that they made it easier for people to receive a benefit “when they clearly don’t need it.”64 Such strategies could be revived and reinvigorated to ease the gratuitous labor burden they place on poor women.
But even the most streamlined set of public entitlement programs is a less-efficient mode of support than cash-value, recurring income payments with no strings attached. A basic guaranteed income program could radically strengthen and streamline the social safety net while eliminating the need for poor women’s administrative labor to access support for themselves and their loved ones. The Magnolia Mother’s Trust, a pilot basic guaranteed income program, provides $1,000 in monthly cash support to low-income Black mothers in Jackson, Mississippi, for twelve months. Launched by Springboard to Opportunities, the trust imposes no restrictions on how funds can be spent or on how mothers use their time while receiving the support. It aims, instead, to “provide the necessary freedom for participants to define meaningful work for themselves.”65
The Economic Security Project, which supports and studies guaranteed income programs like these, suggests that community-based programs like Magnolia Mother’s Trust could be effectively brought to scale through state and federal income tax reform. Their proposed Cost-of-Living Refund policies would modify the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) to provide an $8,000-per-worker credit to low-and-middle-income households. It would also expand EITC to include families without children and those performing important work outside the formal economy, such as full-time caregivers. It would also modernize the benefit to enable automatic filing and allow families to elect monthly payments rather than an annual refund for continuity of income.66
Together, these efforts could help end the extortion of women’s labor and resources that has defined the hypercarceral era, restore to women some of what they have sacrificed, and perhaps even build a new public infrastructure based on the intimate ethics of care.
Tasseli McKay, Stolen Wealth, Hidden Power: The Case for Reparations for Mass Incarceration (University of California Press, 2022), pp. 71, 75, 88–96. Excerpted and reprinted with permission.
- Gina Clayton and others, Because She’s Powerful: The Political Isolation and Resistance of Women with Incarcerated Loved Ones (Los Angeles and Oakland, CA: Essie Justice Group, 2018), 67.
- Christopher Wildeman, “Imprisonment and (Inequality in) Population Health,” Social Science Research, 41 (2012): 74–91.
- Beth E. Richie, “The Social Impact of Mass Incarceration on Women,” in Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, ed. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (New York: New Press, 2011), 147.
- E. Ann Carson and Joseph Mulako-Wangota, Count of Total Releases (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 2020), https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=nps.
- Valerie A. Clark and Grant Duwe, “Distance Matters: Examining the Factors That Impact Prisoner Visitation in Minnesota,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 44, no. 2 (2017): 184–204, https://doi.org/10.1177/0093854816667416.
- Mimi Cantwell, Prisoners in 1978, National Prison Statistics Program (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 1979), www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/psfi78.pdf; E. Ann Carson, Prisoners in 2018 (Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, 2020), www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=6846.
- John Roman et al., Impact and Cost Benefit Analysis of the Maryland Reentry Partnership Initiative (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, 2007), http://webarchive.urban.org/UploadedPDF/311421_Maryland_Reentry.pdf.
- Carson and Mulako-Wangota, Count of Total Releases.
- Hedwig Lee et al., “A Heavy Burden: The Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Having a Family Member Incarcerated,” American Journal of Public Health 104, no. 3 (2014): 421–27.
- Peter K. Enns et al., “What Percentage of Americans Have Ever Had a Family Member Incarcerated? Evidence from the Family History of Incarceration Survey (FamHIS),” Socius 5 (2019): https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023119829332.
- Dalia Giedrimiene and Rachel King, “Abstract 207: Burden of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) on Economic Cost. Comparison of Outcomes in US and Europe,” Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes 10, no. suppl_3 (March 2017): x, https://doi.org/10.1161/circoutcomes.10.suppl_3.207.
- Evelyn Bromet et al., “Cross-National Epidemiology of DSM-IV Major Depressive Episode,” BMC Medicine 9, no. 1 (2011): 90, https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-9-90; Enns et al., “What Percentage of Americans.”
- Christopher Wildeman, Jason Schnittker, and Kristin Turney, “Despair by Association? The Mental Health of Mothers with Children by Recently Incarcerated Fathers,” American Sociological Review 77, no. 2 (2012): 216–43.
- Gordon Parker et al., “Costs of the Principal Mood Disorders: A Study of Comparative Direct and Indirect Costs Incurred by Those with Bipolar I, Bipolar II and Unipolar Disorders,” Journal of Affective Disorders 149, no. 1 (2012): 46–55, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2012.10.002.
- Katherine Beckett, “The Politics, Promise, and Peril of Criminal Justice Reform in the Context of Mass Incarceration,” Annual Review of Criminology 1, no. 1 (2018): 235–59, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-criminol-032317-092458.
- Council on State Governments, Confined and Costly. Washington, DC: CSG Justice Center, June 2019. https://csgjusticecenter.org/publications/confined-costly.
- United States Department of Agriculture, “USDA Proposes to Close SNAP Automatic Eligibility Loophole,” press release, July 23, 2019, www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2019/07/23/usda-proposes-close-snap-automatic-eligibilityloophole.
- Springboard to Opportunities, “Magnolia Mother’s Trust,” 2020, http://springboardto.org/index.php/page/the-magnolia-mothers-trust.
- Elaine Maag, Donald Marron, and Erin Huffer, Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit: The Economic Security Project’s Cost-of-Living Refund (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2019), www.taxpolicycenter.org/publications/expanding-earned-income-tax-credit-economic-security-projects-cost-livingrefund.
- Clayton et al., Because She’s Powerful, 83–85.