Ex-Inmates and Residential Segregation in America

  • Firebaugh, Glenn A. (PI)
  • Massoglia, Michael (CoPI)

Project: Research project

Project Details



Glenn Firebaugh

Michael Massoglia

Pennsylvania State University

This study aims is to determine how the rate of incarceration in the United States, which is among the highest in the world, affects the economic and racial composition of American neighborhoods. Our first hypothesis is that ex-inmates will tend to live in more socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods, other things equal. For any two individuals who are otherwise similar (same race, same level of education, similar criminal record, and so on), the one who serves time in prison is predicted to live in a more disadvantaged neighborhood after release from prison. Second, we hypothesize that the very high rate of incarceration among black men ?2001 data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice indicates one in six black male adults had served time in prison at some point in their lives ? affects the racial composition of neighborhoods by steering black ex-inmates disproportionately into homogeneously black neighborhoods. If this is hypothesis is correct , then the high rate of incarceration of blacks may be slowing the racial integration of American neighborhoods. Our third hypothesis is that the effect of incarceration on neighborhood composition increases over the years after release from prison. Incarceration fractures social bonds, stunts economic and labor market opportunities, and diminishes social chances. These detrimental effects are expected to cumulate over time and result in diminished housing and residential opportunities. As a result, ex-inmates are likely to increasingly cluster in a few residential areas the longer they have been out of prison, and these areas are predicted to be economically substandard and (at least for blacks) racially homogeneous.

Broader Impacts

According to a recent PEW study, at any given point in time, one of every 100 American adults is incarcerated. The lasting implications of this fact for American society have yet to be fully realized. Although the average length of a prison sentence is slightly less than five years, the repercussions can last a lifetime. There is research evidence that incarceration reduces job prospects, depresses earnings, and causes a host of health problems. This study adds a community dimension to the discussion. Indeed, the proposed project is among the first to use nationally representative longitudinal data and GIS and other appropriate methods to assess, systematically, the communities to which inmates return after serving their sentences. This study thus provides a rigorous assessment of how much the growth of the prison population has affected the economic and racial composition of American neighborhoods. We use analytical methods to compare the residential location of ex-inmates with the residential location of comparable individuals who were not incarcerated. We are especially interested in determining whether the growing number of ex-inmates in the U.S. has exacerbated the residential segregation of Americans along socioeconomic and racial lines. As previously noted, it is possible that the high rate of incarceration of blacks is serving to slow the racial integration of American neighborhoods. In short, this research addresses the question of whether incarceration, through its effects on the economic and racial composition of neighborhoods, has had a broader impact on the social organization of American communities than has been previously recognized.

Effective start/end date10/1/109/30/13


  • National Science Foundation: $110,000.00


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