Invisible Men

by Kieran Healy on January 11, 2013

Over the years I’ve [written]( [about]( the work of [Bruce Western](, [Becky Pettit](, [Chris Uggen](, and other scholars who study mass incarceration in the United States. By now, the basic outlines of the phenomenon are pretty well established and, I hope, widely known. Two features stand out: its [sheer scale](, and its [disproportionate concentration]( amongst young, unskilled black men. It should be astonishing to say that more than one percent of all American adults are incarcerated, and that this rate is without equal in the country’s history and without peer internationally. Similarly, it may seem hard to believe that “five percent of white men and 28 percent of black men born between 1975 and 1979 spent at least a year in prison before reaching age thirty five”, or that “28 percent of white and 68 percent of black high-school dropouts had spent at least a year in prison by 2009”.

Those numbers come from the first chapter of Becky Pettit’s new book, [*Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress*]( You can read [the first chapter]( for free, but I recommend you [buy the book]( Pettit’s argument is that mass incarceration is such a large and intensive phenomenon that it distorts our understanding of many other social processes.

Pettit and others have been arguing for a long time that incarceration is by now a modal event in the life-course for young black men. Black men are more likely to go prison than complete college or serve in the military, and black, male, high-school dropouts are more likely to spend a year in prison than to get married. These social-structural changes have consequences for measuring and counting those involved. The incarcerated population is hard to count properly, and in many commonly-used data sources, like the Current Population Survey, its size and composition is poorly estimated or simply excluded. This has knock-on effects for our understanding of trends—especially changes in racial gaps—in things like rates of educational attainment, the employment-to-population ratio, group differences in average earnings, and voter turnout. In many of these cases, Pettit shows, what look like improvements over time are partly or mostly explained by miscounting due to the incarcerated population. This invisibility can happen both while people are in prison (as many surveys don’t adequately count the prison population) but also on release, where the marginal status of many ex-convicts makes them hard to reach in surveys built around sampling individuals stably attached to single households.

So, for example, Pettit shows that

Reliance on data from the Current Population Survey might lead one to believe that the high school dropout rate has fallen precipitously and that racial inequality has narrowed during the period of penal expansion … [CPS data] imply that the black-white gap in high-school completion, through either formal schooling or a GED, narrowed from 13.6 to 6.3 percentage poitns between 1980 amd 2008. Including inmates, we find little improvement in the black-white gap in high school for the last twenty years … including inmates suggests that the racial gap in high school completion among men has hovered close to its current level of 11 percentage points for most of the past twenty years” (55, 60).

Much the same seems to be true of group-level estimates of employment rates, wages, and voter turnout. Pettit argues in passing that the strong turn in the social science literature towards estimating causal effects (between education and wages, say) has led to a lack of attention to the quality of the purely descriptive numbers, and to a tendency to ignore the “acute sample bias associated with the exclusion of socially marginal groups from sample surveys” (107). This neglect feeds forward into that research, however, even if the research is not about inmates or criminal records at all, as it tends to bias estimates of the effects of, say, education on earnings. Moreover, Pettit argues,

… incarceration is so common in some sociodemographic groups that there are few comparable individuals in the population who have not experienced incarceration. The ubiquity of incarceration among low-skill black men undercuts research designs that require comparison groups to isolate the effects of incarceration from other factors like race, low education, or living in disadvantaged neighborhoods. A significant body of causally oriented research uses quasi-experimental designs … that compare the outomes of inmates or former inmates with similarly-situated indviduals who have not been to prison or jail. There is no valid comparison group for many of America’s inmates exactly because incarceration now inheres in whole sociodemographic groups ..

A broader theme of the book is that inmates and ex-inmates are at once constantly under surveillance and effectively unseen. Crime coverage is ubiquitous even as crime rates have been falling for years. The incarcerated and formerly-incarcerated population is enormous, but its real presence is invisible in many standard sources of data about the American population. The downstream consequences for our basic picture of what America is like and how it has been changing are underappreciated. In an era where “Big Data” is already an overused buzzword, Pettit’s book is a sobering reminder of the consequences of having a numerically large, socially consequential, but often statistically invisible population.



mpowell 01.11.13 at 5:03 pm

Well, at least it looks like incarceration rates in the US might finally be turning around. It would be great if lead poisoning turns out to have been the big culprit and that it’s reduction has resulted in falling crime and hopefully now falling incarceration. I say this because the likelihood of the US gov doing anything proactive to address this problem is essentially nil. It will be another 20-30 years of decriminilization before we’ll even have a chance start to talk about the war on drugs in a way that makes sense (and I would still consider that outcome unlikely).


Josh G. 01.11.13 at 5:24 pm

mpowell @ 1: the problem is that the lead-spawned crime wave of the 1970s-1980s led to a proliferation of draconian “get tough” laws, and even though crime is down, the laws haven’t gone away. And these laws are applied in an extremely uneven manner; middle-class white kids experiment with drugs and usually no one cares, at most they might get fines or probation, while poor black kids experiment with drugs and go to prison. And since people convicted of felonies can’t vote in most states, even after they get out, America’s laws make it all too easy for the powers-that-be to disenfranchise inconvenient demographic groups.


ragweed 01.11.13 at 5:26 pm

Thank you Kieren. This is an important subject that has gotten signficantly overlooked.

It may be that lead poisoning can explain crime rates*, but incarceration is not directly related to crime rates (other than in obvious ways). The extremely high rate of incarceration for African-american men is not a factor of higher crime rates – both whites and African-American’s abuse drugs at roughly equal rates but African-American men have a much higher rate of arrest, trial, and imprisonment for drug crimes than whites. There is clear, institutional bias at work.

(*though I suspect that trying to explain a complex social phenomena with a single environmental factor is probably wishful thinking – but I am not familiar with the quality of the research).


Tom 01.11.13 at 5:30 pm

There’ an interesting extended interview with Pettit on this topic here:


ponce 01.11.13 at 5:35 pm

Bank of America pays a $10 billion fine for stealing thousands of houses…yet no one goes to jail.


MPAVictoria 01.11.13 at 5:40 pm

“And since people convicted of felonies can’t vote in most states, even after they get out, America’s laws make it all too easy for the powers-that-be to disenfranchise inconvenient demographic groups.”

Can’t vote and can’t find work due to their record. So they invariably end up back in prison. Such a mess.


Hidari 01.11.13 at 6:13 pm

Josh G, mpowell ,

Whoah hold on there tigers. The “lead causes crime” idea is interesting, and there does seem to be some interesting circumstantial evidence for it, but it is very very very very very far from proven. That does NOT mean it won’t turn out to be true (for all I know it’s 100% true) but especially for such an “out there” theory it’s wise to be cautious at this stage.

Having said that if anyone has a better idea for why crime hasn’t soared during the “Great Recession” (as was clearly predicted by at least some current established models) I would like to hear it.


Martin Bento 01.11.13 at 6:34 pm

People are circling around what I think may be a productive structural change: let prisoners vote. Not just former, but current, though at a minimum former. Since they are concentrated in certain places, they can swing a few elections and get representation. If a town wants the economic boom of incarceration, they get to have that population help select their congressperson. They won’t necessarily be happy about this, but towns that bring in colleges don’t necessarily like what it does to their politics either, but they usually shut up (well, complain loudly) and take the money.

Voting is not a privilege; it is a right. If the government can exclude people from voting by convicting them, it can skew elections by targeting certain groups, and this is arguably part of what is happening. Giving prisoners the vote is in part a move against concentrated government power, which should appeal to some libertarians. We’ll see if it does.


Anarcissie 01.11.13 at 6:50 pm

Hidari 01.11.13 at 6:13 pm:
… Having said that if anyone has a better idea for why crime hasn’t soared during the “Great Recession” (as was clearly predicted by at least some current established models) I would like to hear it.

It’s creeping socialism. These days, most crime is performed for us by the government. As a result, many private criminals have become lazy and have no initiative.


Martin Bento 01.11.13 at 6:58 pm

A baby step that might be more politically palatable could be to require employers and licensing agencies to respect expungements. Some job applications and even applications for government-approved licenses require people to disclose all convictions even if expunged or overturned. The Court should stand up for the fact that it has determined that its action in convicting should not be part of this persons’ official history, and no employer should be able to override it in this. Since expungements are, I believe, rare, this would not affect that many people, but I would like to see some movement in the direction of giving people a route back into normal society.


Elizabeth 01.11.13 at 7:03 pm

I haven’t read Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” but from what I’ve heard, it covers some of the same territory. Could someone who has read both say how they compare?


John Quiggin 01.11.13 at 9:19 pm

My university HR department is trying to institute an across-the-board requirement for new appointments to declare criminal history.


david 01.11.13 at 9:26 pm

“There is no valid comparison group for many of America’s inmates exactly because incarceration now inheres in whole sociodemographic groups .. ”

Yikes, hadn’t thought of it quite that way, not being a numbers person. thanks for posting I’d not have gone and read the book otherwise, and now at least I hope to.


Tom Hurka 01.11.13 at 10:21 pm

In a series of court decisions culminating in 2002, the Canadian courts have struck down those portions of the election law that said prison inmates can’t vote as unconstitutional; all prisoners now can vote. Has any similar litigation been tried in the US?


Matt 01.11.13 at 11:05 pm

Tom- in the US a major impediment to such litigation is the section in the 14th Amendment which says that the right to vote can be limited only, “for participation in rebellion, or other crime”. Now, it seems pretty reasonable to me to read the “or other crime” as meaning a crime related to rebellion, but that’s not how it’s been interpreted in the past, and because of legal practice in the US, that carries a lot of weight. For the US as well, these laws are state laws, not federal- different states have different rules on felon disenfranchisement, and it could well be that someone could bring a challenge under a state constitution. I don’t know about those very much. But the standard interpretation of this clause is that it allows (but doesn’t require) states to restrict the voting rights of those convicted of crimes, or at least felonies. It seems very unlikely to change to me, given the current court. (I suspect, but am not sure, that it would be very hard to change this nationally in the US via legislation- I don’t mean in the sense that it would be hard for such a bill to pass, though that’s true, too, but that such a bill would, I think, face serious constitutional challenges, given the court we have now, but I’d be glad to hear from people w/ more knowledge than me on voting rights as to whether this is right.)


Patrick S. O'Donnell 01.11.13 at 11:18 pm

The Wikipedia entry on felony disenfranchisement is helpful:

“As of 2011, only two states, Kentucky and Virginia, continue to impose a lifelong denial of the right to vote to all citizens with a felony record, absent some extraordinary intervention by the Governor or state legislature. However, in Kentucky, a felon’s rights can now be restored after the completion of a restoration process to regain civil rights. In 2007, Florida moved to restore voting rights to convicted felons. In March 2011, however, Republican Governor Rick Scott reversed the 2007 reforms, making Florida the state with the most punitive law in terms of disenfranchising citizens with past felony convictions. In July 2005, Democratic Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring the right to vote for all persons who have completed supervision. On October 31, 2005, Iowa’s Supreme Court upheld mass re-enfranchisement of ex-convicts. Nine other states disenfranchise felons for various lengths of time following their conviction. Except Maine and Vermont, every state prohibits felons from voting while in prison.

Unlike most other laws that burden the right of citizens to vote based on some form of social status, felony disenfranchisement laws have been held to be constitutional. In Richardson v. Ramirez, the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of felon disenfranchisement statutes, finding that the practice did not deny equal protection to disenfranchised voters. The Court looked to Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which proclaims that States which deny the vote to male citizens, except on the basis of ‘participation of rebellion, or other crime,’ will suffer a reduction in representation. Based on this language, the Court found that this amounted to an ‘affirmative sanction’ of the practice of felon disenfranchisement, and the 14th Amendment could not prohibit in one section that which is expressly authorized in another. However, many critics argue that Section 2 of the 14th Amendment merely allows, but does not represent an endorsement of, felony disenfranchisement statutes as constitutional in light of the equal protection clause and is limited only to the issue of reduced representation. The Court did rule, however, in Hunter v. Underwood 471 U.S. 222, 232 (1985) that a state’s felony disenfranchisement provision will violate Equal Protection if it can be demonstrated that the provision, as enacted, had ‘both [an] impermissible racial motivation and racially discriminatory impact.’ A felony disenfranchisement law, which on its face is indiscriminate in nature, cannot be invalidated by the Supreme Court unless its enforcement is proven to racially discriminate and to have been enacted with racially discriminatory animus.

Currently, over 5.3 million people in the United States are denied the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement.”

To keep up-to-date on this topic, one can consult The Sentencing Project:

My bibliography and links on “punishment and prison” may interest those wanting to do some further reading and research:–1.html


Bloix 01.11.13 at 11:28 pm

I made this point in a narrow context three years ago in response to a study that claimed that in recent years, men report being happier than women. The study was taken up by a lot of noisy right-wingers who argued that it proved that feminism made women miserable. A little arithmetic showed that the “happiness gap” went away if you assumed that (1) prisoners hadn’t been interviewed and (2) people in prison are not too happy. The implication is that no matter what you are studying, the percentage of people in prison is so high that it will affect your results – and this is particularly true when you are looking for gender, racial, or ethnic differences.

Here’s what I wrote:

“In 2008, just over 1% of the US adult population was in prison or jail – over 2.3 million people. Approximately 7% of them were women. That is, roughly 1.9% of adult men are incarcerated; and roughly 0.14% of adult women are incarcerated. …what happens if you add estimated results for prisoners to the survey results – that is, you increase the percentage of men who are “not too happy” by about 1.9% and increase the percentage of women who are “not too happy” by about 0.14? As I read the graph reproduced in the post, the difference in the “not too happy” lines between men and women is less than 1%, so if prisoners were included the men’s line would be higher than the women’s line.”


rmgosselin 01.11.13 at 11:58 pm

I teach a college class in Attica, which is waaaaaay out in the country, surrounded by plenty of nothing and nobody. Last semester, the students were bombarding me with questions about their peers at the “regular” campus, and one man asked, “Are they as curious about us as we are about them?”

No. No, they’re not.

The incarcerated population is known to some people, though: the upstate villages love the free labor and job opportunities for native sons & daughters. Plus, there always seem to be attempts to use prisoners in election district chess, not unlike the Three Fifths Compromise of 1787.

When the prison first opened, back in 1929-30, the state loved to report that the citizens of the town were thrilled, and were bringing books and all kinds of goodies to the new campers in their midst. Plus, the original design of the surrounding wall had it largely open in the front, giving the illusion of honesty and openness. That didn’t last long.

One more thing: teaching “The Cask of Amontillado” there is a trip.


Matt M 01.12.13 at 1:37 am

Similar to John Quiggin @ 12, my institution requires a declaration of criminal history for anyone applying to a graduate program.


rf 01.12.13 at 2:03 am

“my institution requires a declaration of criminal history for anyone applying to a graduate program.”

They want a police spec or just for you to declare whether you do/dont have a record? If the second you just lie. Theyre not going to check


Matt M 01.12.13 at 2:41 am

They want you to declare (including cases that may have resulted in probation or fine, like major traffic violations), and reserve the right to rescind an offer of admission if you don’t tell them and they find out after the fact. They also include a question about misconduct at other institutions as well, and you’d need to explain the violations.

So yeah, you could lie. But it’s clear they’re discincentivizing applications to the university, presumably under the guise of keeping the campus safe.


faustusnotes 01.12.13 at 9:48 am

This is a very interesting post. I note that a lot of epidemiological and social science studies in the USA include “race” as a confounder in their analyses. I wonder how much that confounder variable is actually acting as a proxy for “prison history”? And I wonder if good research practice in the USA should include always asking about the prison history of survey respondents?

When I was recruiting staff in the UK I had an applicant declare their prison history. This was entirely voluntary on their part, I would have thought, and I was surprised they bothered, and it struck me as very sad that they should have to declare it at all. How can this not lead to discrimination against past prisoners?

Australia allows prisoners to vote if they are serving less than 3 years, and those in for longer than 3 years regain the right upon release.


R.Mutt 01.12.13 at 6:19 pm

Fortunately the country has an African-American President and an African-American Attorney General, who will certainly address this issue.


william c wesley 01.12.13 at 8:10 pm

When a nation wins a war it gets the spoils of war, we won world war II and so for a while Americans got it all. We have not won a war since so eventually the infusion of bounty dwindles, usually just as the population increases due to the exceptionally favorable conditions for raising children brought on by the bounty . The bounty we won in the mid 40’s was running out by the mid 70’s so the economically besieged middle class population voted to incarcerate (3 strikes/ preset sentencing) almost the entire black population as well as any poor whites.
I’d be willing to bet the divide lines of white to black are not significant and that if statistics are spun for poverty alone you will find THAT to be the determining factor and not race. Fewer whites are poor so fewer got to prison, this is an attack against the poor regardless of race.
Its was all pure class fear, pampered conquerors trying to shut out the rest from a diminishing trough of spoils, the motivation pure greed and economic paranoia
What is morally right never even enters the picture.


rf 01.12.13 at 8:44 pm

“So yeah, you could lie. But it’s clear they’re discincentivizing applications to the university, presumably under the guise of keeping the campus safe.”

I don’t disagree, but this is the way tthings are going, and I don’t see any constituency willing to actually lobby for the rights of ‘criminals’. So best thing we can do is encourage a norm in favour of lying about convictions/jail time etc


parse 01.12.13 at 9:08 pm

Well, at least it looks like incarceration rates in the US might finally be turning around. It would be great if lead poisoning turns out to have been the big culprit and that it’s reduction has resulted in falling crime and hopefully now falling incarceration.

It would be nice to think so, but if I recall correctly one of the points made in The New Jim Crow is that incarceration has been increasing for ten years while crime was falling.


purple 01.13.13 at 6:02 am

It’s one way to cut down on the unemployment rate, since our economic system is by its nature incapable of providing full employment.


R.Mutt 01.13.13 at 9:18 am

@26 Incarceration really has been decreasing a bit the last few years, see:


Wonks Anonymous 01.14.13 at 2:54 pm

ragweed, I don’t think drug “abuse” is responsible for that much of the incarcerated population. Drug dealing is. But I don’t know where to find rates for drug dealing.

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