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Almost half of U.S. adults have seen a family member jailed, study shows

About 6.5 million adults have an immediate family member incarcerated.

Almost half of the adults in the U.S. have experienced an immediate family member being incarcerated. (iStock)

Nearly 1 in 2 adults in the United States has seen an immediate family member go to jail or prison for at least one night, according to a new study from Cornell University.

One in 7 adults has had an immediate family member behind bars for at least a year; for 1 in 34 adults that relative has been behind bars a decade or longer.

The study estimates that 6.5 million adults, 1 in 38, currently have an immediate family member incarcerated.

Among black and Native American adults the numbers are higher: 63 percent have had a family member in jail or prison for a night or more, compared with 48 percent of Latino and 42 percent of white adults. More than half of black adults with a college degree have seen a family member locked up, compared with less than a third of college-educated white adults. Three times as many black adults as white adults have seen a close relative imprisoned for a year or more — 31 percent, compared with 10 percent.

Low-income residents are also more likely to see their relatives jailed: More than half of adults making $25,000 a year or less have, compared with a third of those making $100,000 a year or more. Looking just at people with relatives locked up for a year or more, it’s about a quarter of the lowest income and 8 percent of the highest-income residents.

People living in the Northeast are least likely to see an immediate relative go to jail or prison, according to the study — less than a third have.

Only 1 in 4 survey respondents said they were able to visit the incarcerated relative, although that result includes cases of only a night in jail. Still, less than half the people surveyed who had a family member locked up for more than a year said they had been able to visit.

The survey was designed by Cornell researchers for, a nonprofit launched in 2013 by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to advocate for looser immigration laws. The tech industry lobbying group has since broadened its goals to include criminal justice reform.

“This research corroborates what too many families have known for too long: our current criminal justice system is harming our economy, communities, and families and undermining the promise of what America can and should be,” said Todd Schulte, the president of He previously worked for a super PAC to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012.