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Project 2Gen discusses families, incarceration in Albany


groupof 13 people standing indoors in front of a marble wall

Project 2Gen Scholars went to Albany on April 30, led by Jamila Michener, center left, assistant professor of government; Chris Wildeman, center right, professor of policy analysis and management and director of the Bronfenbrenner Center; and Laura Tach, to Wildeman’s left, associate professor of policy analysis and management.

By Sheri Hall in the Cornell Chronicle

Cornell Project 2Gen – a community of researchers and practitioners focused on supporting children and their caregivers through a multigenerational perspective – visited Albany April 30 to share research about families and incarceration with New York state legislators.

Christopher Wildeman, associate vice provost for the social sciences, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research, director of the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect and professor of policy analysis and management, presented his research about how children are negatively affected by having parents in jail or prison.

And Jamila Michener, assistant professor of government, shared her research on the positive, multigenerational effects of providing education to prisoners.

After presenting their work to senators and assembly members, Wildeman and Michener then discussed with legislators and their advisors how research findings could shape policies and laws in New York state.

Project 2Gen, launched in 2017 by the Bronfenbrenner Center, addresses issues from the perspective of the entire family to highlight the importance of thinking about both caregivers and children when designing research, legislation and programming, said Elizabeth Day, a postdoctoral fellow for Cornell Project 2Gen who organized the event.

“The goal of our presentation was twofold: to create the opportunity for open discussion among researchers and policymakers around a topic that’s on the policy agenda, and to present nonpartisan research evidence taking a two-generation perspective to criminal justice,” Day said. “We really emphasize the educational approach; we weren’t there to promote any specific policy or program, but instead to provide a range of information including background, current statistics on the issue and a range of promising programs.”

Dianna Goodwin, a senior policy advisor to Sen. Luis Sepulveda, a member of the Senate Crime Victims, Crime and Correction Committee, said she found the presentations informative and useful.

“We hear many points of view on criminal justice reform in the Legislature, but not often results of careful academic study on real-world problems,” Goodwin said. “I really appreciated the thoughtful, well-researched information presented and will use it to inform my work. I look forward to a continued discussion and partnership with the 2Gen researchers.”

Halle Mahoney, a graduate student at the Cornell Institute for Public Affairs and a 2019 Cornell 2Gen Scholar, contributed to research on prison education programs in New York. She became interested in criminal justice policy after visiting Tent City Jail in Maricopa County, Arizona, as an undergraduate.

The Albany event, which she helped organize, underscored for her the importance of communication between researchers and policymakers, she said.

“Each of these groups has something to learn from the other,” she said. “I saw firsthand the importance of data in shaping policy. Data is really important for making evaluations of whether a program or policy is successful or not.

“The conversations I was part of during our visit,” she said, “showed how academic researchers have the tools and background to collect data and provide information for policymakers to make important decisions.”

Project 2Gen discusses families, incarceration in Albany - Cornell Chronicle

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Nearly half of Americans have had a family member jailed, imprisoned


shadowy prison hallway lined with bars

credit: Rawf8/Adobe Stock

By Susan Kelley for the Cornell Chronicle

In a groundbreaking Cornell-led study illuminating the extensive scope of mass incarceration in the U.S., nearly 1 in 2 Americans have had a brother or sister, parent, spouse or child spend time in jail or prison – a far higher figure than previously estimated.

The study is the first to accurately measure the share of Americans – 45 percent – who have ever had an immediate family member jailed or imprisoned for one night or more. The researchers had assumed they would find half that rate.

“The core takeaway is family member incarceration is even more common than any of us – all of whom are experts in the field – had anticipated,” said Christopher Wildeman, professor of policy analysis and management and a co-author of the study, which appeared March 4 in Socius.

“This really is an issue that affects all of society,” added lead author Peter Enns, associate professor of government. Their Cornell co-authors are doctoral candidates Youngmin Yi, M.A. ’16, and Alyssa Goldman ’07, M.A. ’16.

The figures are even higher for African-Americans and people with low education levels; for those groups, nearly 3 in 5 have had an immediate family member incarcerated, the team found. And siblings were the most common immediate family member to be incarcerated, the researchers said – another surprise finding – and a trend about which not much is known.

“Having an immediate family member in prison instead of in the home can have a major effect on a person and can be extremely disruptive,” said Enns.

Portrait of Christopher Wildeman

Christopher Wildeman

“This survey really shows who the victims of mass incarceration are: the folks who have to manage households and grow up absent a loved one,” said Wildeman, director of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research.

More-advantaged groups are not immune to the trend, the study found. While college-educated whites experience family incarceration at a much lower rate than the less-educated and people of color, 1 in 6 – 15 percent – have had that experience. “That breaks pretty sharply from the standard narrative that we’ve heard in the research community and in popular discourse, about how white, college-educated folks are completely insulated from those risks,” said Wildeman. “And, indeed, this provides further evidence that mass incarceration is a profoundly American phenomenon and something that we as a society must confront together.”

Even though all groups are affected, education does somewhat insulate whites from having a family member imprisoned. As their level of education goes up, their level of incarcerated family members goes down.

But that is much less true for African-Americans; the chances an African-American will have a family member jailed or imprisoned stays about the same even if she is well-educated. About 70 percent of people who didn’t finish high school have had a family member incarcerated; it’s 71 percent for those with a high school equivalent; and 55 percent for those who have a college education.

“This survey really shows who the victims of mass incarceration are: the folks who have to manage households and grow up absent a loved one.”
-Christopher Wildeman, professor of policy analysis and management and BCTR director

The research, which grew out of a theme project sponsored by Cornell’s Institute for the Social Sciences, is the first to capture both jail time and prison time for family members. And it represents people who are often overlooked in national surveys – such as young adults, households with a low socio-economic status, those without internet access and Spanish speakers – thanks to study’s design: participants were able to take the survey online or by phone, in English or in Spanish.

The researchers asked a nationally representative sample of more than 4,000 people whether members of their immediate family (a parent, sibling, spouse or domestic partner, stepsiblings or foster family) or extended family (including grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, nieces, nephews or in-laws) have ever been held in jail or prison for a night or more, and for how long.

The participants were also asked follow-up questions about their experiences with and opinions of the police and the criminal justice system, health and well-being, civic and political engagement, and drug and alcohol use.

The researchers will dig into that data in later studies – and they invite other researchers to do so as well. They’ve made their data publicly available via Cornell’s Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, of which Enns is executive director, to allow others to both see what else the data show and confirm the findings for themselves.

The researchers hope the study will destigmatize the incarceration of family members.

“I hope that it will help folks see that this is more a structural issue than a behavioral one,” Wildeman said. “And I hope that it would drive home just how much more we can learn when we do the work to get surveys that explicitly focus on crime and criminal justice contact.”

The study was co-written by researchers from Research Triangle International; Washington University, St. Louis; University of California, Berkeley; Rutgers University; and Yale University. It was funded by FWD.us, a nonprofit focusing on immigration and criminal justice.

Study: Nearly half of Americans have had a family member jailed, imprisoned - Cornell Chronicle

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Whitlock named BCTR associate director


portrait of Janis Whitlock

Janis Whitlock

BCTR researcher Janis Whitlock accepted a new position this summer as the center’s associate director for teaching and training.

Whitlock’s research focuses on using social media to detect and treat mental health problems, understanding self-injury and reducing sexual violence among young people. She is the director of the Cornell Project on Self-Injury and Recovery and she advises and mentors more than a dozen students each year.

BCTR Director Christopher Wildeman said Whitlock’s focus on teaching and training will benefit the center.

“I simply cannot imagine anyone who could lead us in that direction better than Janis, and so I am very much looking forward to seeing where we go under her leadership,” he said.

In Whitlock’s new position, she will support and advance BCTR’s role in providing educational opportunities that help researchers, students and the broader community understand the reciprocal relationship between social science and on-the-ground policy and practice. This includes continuing BCTR popular talk series, providing training forums for researchers within and outside of Cornell and teaching and mentoring students in areas related to translational research.

“I am delighted that I was offered this opportunity to support a central value inherent in the mission of the BCTR, College of Human Ecology, and Cornell as a whole: fortifying links between science, policy and practice in service of human development and wellbeing,” Whitlock said. “Deepening BCTR activity in this area and advancing collaboration with translation-minded programs and individuals on campus is something I’m very excited about.”

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