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Facts about Incarceration and Poverty

Every year, millions of men and women leave America’s state and federal prisons and local jails with the hope of a successful return to society. In 2005, 698,459 individuals passed through prison gates and an estimated 9 million individuals exited jail.

Many former prisoners return to dependent children. In 2001, prisoners released from state or federal prison were parents to 1.5 million children. There are 3.2 million children if inmates released from jail and on parole are included.

The challenges of prisoner reentry are therefore not experienced by released prisoners alone; they are challenges experienced by families that are predominantly low income.

Returning Prisoners and Their Families

  • Prisoners rely heavily on their families for housing and support immediately after their release. 
  • Prisoners generally benefit from returning to their families. 
  • Children of released prisoners are an extremely vulnerable population. 

Employment Opportunities

  • Released prisoners have a hard time finding and maintaining employment in the year following reentry.
  • Service providers and community leaders consider employment to be the primary factor in a successful reentry.
  • Released prisoners who find employment generally work in low-skill jobs.
  • Released prisoners who obtain a job are employed at much lower wages than they earned prior to incarceration.

Housing Opportunities

  • Prisoners have very unstable housing histories after their release.
  • Prisoners often live with parents or siblings after release.


  • Released prisoners have a high probability of being rearrested.
  • Rearrested prisoners are usually apprehended for parole violations.

Provided by: The Urban Institute

Data in this fact sheet are drawn from these Urban Institute publications (except where noted):
Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities, edited by Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul (2004);
“Life After Lockup: Improving Reentry from Jail to the Community,” by Amy L. Solomon, Jenny W. L. Osborne, Stefan LoBuglio, Jeff Mellow, and Debbie Mukamal (2008);
“Cleveland Stakeholders’ Perceptions of Prisoner Reentry,” by Christy Visher, Tobi Palmer, and Caterina Gouvis Roman (2007);
“One Year Out: Experiences of Prisoners Returning to Cleveland,” by Christy Visher and Shannon Courtney (2007);
“Returning Home: Exploring the Challenges and Successes of Recently Released Texas Prisoners,” by Nancy La Vigne, Lisa Brooks, and Tracey Shollenberger (2007);
“Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006,” by William J. Sabol, Todd D. Minton, and Paige M. Harrison (Bureau of Justice Statistics 2007);
“Cleveland Prisoners’ Experiences Returning Home,” by Christy Visher and Shannon M.E. Courtney (2006);
“The Housing Landscape for Returning Prisoners in the District of Columbia,” by Caterina Gouvis Roman, Michael Kane, and Rukmini Giridharadas (2006); and
“Returning Home: Understanding the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, Maryland Pilot Study: Findings from Baltimore,” by Christy Visher, Nancy La Vigne, and Jeremy Travis (2004)

Facts about Prison and Prisoners

The Growing Corrections System

  • The number of inmates in state and federal prisons has increased more than six-fold from less than 200,000 in 1970 to 1,440,655 by the end 2002. An additional 665,475 are held in local jails.
  • As of June 30, 2002, the nation’s prison and jail population exceeded 2 million for the first time in history.
  • At the end of 2002, 1 of every 143 Americans was incarcerated in prison or jail.
  • The number of persons on probation and parole has been growing dramatically along with institutional populations. There are now 6.7 million Americans incarcerated or on probation or parole, an increase of more than 265 percent since 1980.
  • One in eight (12.9%) black males aged 25-29 were in prison or jail at midyear 2002, as were 1 in 23 (4.3%) Hispanic males and 1 in 63 (1.6%) white males in the same age group.
  • Overall, 1 in 1,656 women and 1 in 110 men were in prison in 2002.
  • The 2002 United States’ rate of incarceration of 701 inmates per 100,000 population is the highest reported rate in the world, now ahead of Russia’s rate of 611 per 100,000.

Who is in our Prisons and Jails?

  • 93% of prison inmates are male, 7% female.
  • 45% of prison inmates in 2002 were black and 18% were Hispanic.
  • 68% of state prison inmates in 1997 had not completed high school.
  • 36% of jail inmates in 1996 were unemployed prior to entering jail.
  • 64% of jail inmates in 1996 had monthly incomes of under $1,000 in the month before their arrest.
  • 70% of those sentenced to state prisons in 1998 were convicted of non-violent crimes, including 31% for drug offenses, and 26% for property offenses.
  • 1 in 4 jail inmates in 1996 was in jail for a drug offense, compared to 1 in 10 in 1983; drug offenders constituted 21% of 1999 state prison inmates and 57% of 1999 federal prison inmates.
  • Black males have a 32% chance of serving time in prison at some point in their lives; Hispanic males have a 17% chance; white males have a 6% chance.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The Sentencing Project

Research Resources

Incarceration Generation

Incarceration Generation: Nicholas' Update

26 year old Nicholas turned to gang-life at an early age which resulted in a lengthy prison sentence. Now, on the eve of his parole, he must consider how to move forward for his own good, and for the good of his family.