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No living generation has made it through the incarceration explosion unscathed. In 2009, nearly one in five prisoners was a Baby Boomer. Millennial timing, however, was spectacularly bad. Born as imprisonment rates were on their meteoric rise, they grew up in a country that was locking up their parents, then were locked up themselves as the number of children behind bars hit a record high, and entered adulthood in an age of still-high incarceration rates and punishments that last long after a person steps out of the cage.
According to research from the Center for American Progress, one in four Black Millennials, and close to one in three younger Black Millennials, had an immediate family member imprisoned when they were growing up. White Millennial children fared better, but the statistics are still appalling: Nearly one in seven white children born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up with a loved one behind bars. By contrast, in the 1970s, when Gen Xers were kids, about one in five Black children and about one in 13 white children had a family member imprisoned at some point. In the 1950s, when Boomers were kids, the numbers were one in 10 Black children, and just 4 percent of white children.
By the late 1990s, more than half of adult inmates were parents; all of their minor children, save for those still in diapers, were Millennials. Two percent of America’s children, and 7 percent of Black children nationwide, had an incarcerated parent in 1999 alone. Some 60 percent of parents imprisoned in a state facility were detained more than 100 miles from home, and more than half of those mothers and fathers said they hadn’t had a single visit from their child since being locked up.
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Millennials were left with the scars that come when you’re small and a loved one is ripped from your household. Kids with an incarcerated parent—and the overwhelming majority of incarcerated parents are dads—suffer from higher rates of depression and aggression, and are more likely to act out than kids whose parents are free. They are more likely to grow up poor, more likely to go to jail, and more likely to experience other adverse childhood events, including exposure to substance abuse, family violence, a parent’s death, mental illness, and suicide.
One study published in the journal Demography looked at the impact of incarceration on the household assets that are key to social mobility: owning a car, a bank account, and a home. Families with incarcerated fathers were much less likely than demographically similar ones to have these basic resources.
Incarceration, more broadly, affects worldview. Young people who grow up in over-policed communities of color have “a very different perspective on authority, on the system, on who it’s there to protect,” Emily Galvin-Almanza, the CEO and founder of Partners for Justice—a prison-reform organization—told me when I interviewed her for my book on Millennials. “You have a whole generation of people who have grown up with no belief in the whole ‘Serve and protect’ claim, but who do know that the cages are there waiting as a trap.”