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Incarcerated Populations

The scope of this guide is meant to inform all who interact with it on related issues to mass incarceration and link interested parties to data and advocacy resources.

The Criminalization of Poverty

"Poverty is criminalized when state and local policy choices trap people in the criminal legal system for engaging in activities to survive, such as driving without a license, being forced to sleep outside, or being unable to pay outstanding fines and fees."

Vera Institute of Justice, 2022


Contributing Factors

There are several factors that lead to the high risk that poverty poses on incarceration.

  • A lack of affordable housing means more individuals in poverty become unhoused/homeless
  • Lack of community resources limits access to basic necessities
    • Food banks
    • Shelters
    • Workforce development or vocational training

With these considerations in mind, it makes sense that incarcerated individuals in state prisons have reported disproportionate experiences with homelessness and unemployment.


Prison Policy Initiative, 2022

The Cycle of Poverty

The punishment for many crimes takes the form of fines, which those in poverty cannot always pay. After a certain point of unpaid fines, an individual could face jail time.

But the financial requirements don't end there - the cash bail system relies on the assumption that an arrested individual can afford to pay bail and be released. Those who cannot are unable to get out of jail. And, if someone were to take this issue to court, they must pay often exorbitant legal fees.

This cycle of poverty has existed long before its realization in 2015 following the tragic killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Learn more about this phenomenon in the lecture/conversation with Peter Edelman (in partnership with the Center for American Progress) Not A Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty.


Poverty Before and After Release

In discussions of income and incarceration, the focus tends to be after release, not before incarceration. To account for this gap in coverage, the Prison Policy Initiative reviewed data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and created a report based on their findings.

Particularly, this illustrated the income disparities among men and women of different racial/ethnic backgrounds prior to incarceration compared to individuals who are not incarcerated.


Prison Policy Initiative, 2015

As shown above, the report notes that individuals who are formerly incarcerated still have significantly lower incomes than the general public. These disparities can be long-lasting.


Prison Policy Initiative, 2022

This is in part due to the difficulty formerly incarcerated people face in finding jobs.

Unemployment rates for formerly incarcerated individuals in 2008 (27.3%) was higher than the peak unemployment rate during the Great Depression (24.9%) (Couloute & Kopf, 2018).

Notably, the racial/ethnic disparities in unemployment rates mirror that of the racial/ethnic disparities in incarceration rates: Black men and women face higher rates of both compared to White men and women.


Prison Policy Initiative, 2018

View their full report on umployment impacts among the formerly incarcerated here.


Prison Wages and Lack of Wealth Accumulation

While formerly incarcerated individuals struggle with finding jobs due to a myriad of factors, the work done while incarcerated is not well-compensated (if at all). Because this doesn't allow for much buildup of savings prior to release, it can be difficult not only to locate work to support oneself, but afford the cost of living free. 

This dataset from the Prison Policy Initiative breaks down hourly wages for prison labor by state, and further illustrates the difficulty individuals may face regarding financial stability during and following incarceration.


Prison Policy Initiative, 2017

In addition to the numerous reports linked throughout this page, the Prison Policy Initiative has several others specifically targeting the topic of poverty and incarceration. View their list of articles on Poverty & Wealth here.