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Incarceration Effects on Families

Summary and Keywords

The rapid rise in the incarceration rate, most notably in the United States over the last four decades, has drawn greater attention to the disabilities imposed by incarceration experiences and the spillover of these complications to the families of inmates. Prisons have always disproportionately drawn upon the disadvantaged, but research today details how imprisonment creates new harms for inmates as well as for those who are connected to them but were never incarcerated. In this contribution, the effects of incarceration on the family are briefly described across several domains. First, the social patterning of incarceration effects are described, for inmates and for their families, showing that imprisonment effects are both widespread and overwhelmingly repressive for some groups. Next, the effects of incarceration on the families of inmates are described, focusing on the partners and children of inmates, and differentiating between maternal and paternal incarceration. Incarceration is broadly harmful for families, but there is a significant gender gap in knowledge—research on paternal incarceration and the romantic partners of male inmates is much more common, rigorous, and uniform in findings. Where findings are mixed, scholarship is reviewed on how examining incarceration and family life has expanded across varying fields that often differ in their research approach, emphasis, and methodology. Finally, the discussion ends with the most pressing challenges for researchers going forward, suggesting that studies interrogating heterogeneity and leveraging new data sources offer the most fruitful path. This review is focused largely on the United States. First, and most practically, much of our knowledge about the effects of incarceration on the family is based on U.S.-based samples. Second, the effects of incarceration on the family have worsened significantly as a result of the prison boom in the United States. It remains to be seen how such effects translate to different contexts; some research suggests similar process at much lower incarceration rates, while others show less harm in other contexts.

Keywords: mass incarceration, family, racial disparities, gender, policy

Incarceration Effects on Families

The Ubiquity, Social Patterning, and Costs of Incarceration Experiences

Experiencing the incarceration of a family member would be difficult in any era, but such experiences have grown ever more common in the United States. In 1980, about 1.8 million people were under the control of the criminal justice system in some fashion, but only about 520,000 were incarcerated in prisons or jails, and the rest were under probation supervision. By 2007, more than 2.3 million people were serving time in prisons or jails, and more than 5 million were under probation or parole supervision (Glaze & Kaebel, 2014; Kyckelhahn, 2011; Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 2014). While narratives of “criminal others” often focus on the differences between the incarcerated and the free, contact with the criminal justice system today is quite common. A recent national estimate suggests that at least a third of all people in the United States are arrested prior to the age of 23 (Brame, Turner, Paternoster, & Bushway, 2011) and about 1 in 110 are currently incarcerated (Glaze & Kaebel, 2014). Moreover, nearly all of the imprisoned are connected to family in some way—as sons and daughters, as parents, and as siblings—and researchers have only begun to describe the effects of such a large-scale expansion of the criminal justice system on family relationships.

Contact with the criminal justice system is much more common today than it was in decades past, but the aggregate statistics presented above obscure substantial variation in the likelihood of doing time. The risk of arrest and imprisonment is substantially higher for black men relative to white men (Brame et al., 2014; Western & Pettit, 2010); for example, about 27% of black men who came of age during the prison boom were incarcerated relative to 5% of white men (Western & Pettit, 2010, p.11). If ones takes into account the intersection of race and class, incarceration is more common than not for black men without a high school degree (Western, 2006). Such high rates of incarceration in some communities relative to others translate to substantial disparities in the likelihood of experiencing the incarceration of a family member—one recent estimate finds that 44% of black women and 32% of black men have a family member incarcerated compared to only 12% of white women and 6% of white men (Lee, McCormick, Hicken, & Wildeman, 2015). Racial disparities are evident in patterns of female incarceration as well, albeit at lower rates. Women still comprise a relatively small proportion of the prison population (~9%), but their incarceration rate increased at twice the rate of men during the prison boom and the United States leads most European nations in the incarceration of women (Foster & Hagan, 2015; Kruttschnitt, 2010; Myers & Wakefield, 2014).

Estimates of the number and risk of experiencing parental incarceration vary widely. An estimate based on currently incarcerated parents found that about 1.9 million children under the age of 18 had a parent incarcerated (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008) and a more recent estimate suggests that about 5 million children, or 7% of all children, experienced the incarceration of a residential parent at some point in their lives (Murphey & Cooper, 2015). Both estimates are most certainly undercounts—the former only includes currently incarcerated parents, and the latter only children who were living with their parent at the time of prison or jail confinement. We know that, like incarceration among adults, experiencing the incarceration of a parent is increasingly common and affects a large number of children. Also, as with adults, there are large race and class disparities associated with parental incarceration risk. Wildeman (2009) finds that about a quarter of all African American children will experience the incarceration of a parent before their 14th birthday, relative to just under 5% for white children, and other estimates suggest similarly disparate risks (Geller, Garfinkel, Cooper, & Mincy, 2009; Johnson, 2009; Pettit, Sykes, & Western, 2009; Sykes & Pettit, 2014).

The social patterning of incarceration in the United States is such that many more people are incarcerated overall, but such experiences are heavily concentrated in some communities. The implications of this are somewhat perverse—the effects of incarceration are sufficiently widespread to contribute to aggregate-level shifts in inequality and are overwhelmingly repressive, yet such effects are invisible to large swaths of the population (Alexander, 2010; Pettit, 2012; Wacquant, 2000; Western, 2006).

The family members of inmates may be burdened before incarceration through instability related to criminal involvement, substance use, or mental health problems. Imprisonment brings little respite, as families navigate arrest, court processing, and eventual sentencing. While incarceration is intended as a punitive response to individuals charged and/or convicted of offending behaviors, family members are often exposed to the same pains of imprisonment while attempting to provide social support for incarcerated kin. Comfort (2003) describes family members caught up in the criminal justice system as “legal bystanders” who, though free, may still be subjected to treatment similar to that experienced by their incarcerated kin through a form of “secondary prisonization” (Comfort, 2008). As Comfort summarizes so articulately:

Through their association with someone convicted of a crime, legally innocent people have firsthand and often intense contact with criminal justice authorities and correctional facilities, they experience variants of the direct and indirect consequences of incarceration, and they are confronted by the paradox of a penal state.

(Comfort, 2003, p. 271)

Much of the cost of contact with the criminal justice system is transferred to the family members of inmates. Family members must often replace the earnings, childcare, and household labor of an incarcerated family member as well as assume costs related to legal debt and maintaining contact with incarcerated kin (Braman, 2004; Comfort, 2008; Grinstead, Faigeles, Bancroft, & Zack, 2001; Harris, Evans, & Beckett, 2010). Because inmates are often incarcerated far from home, visitation is costly in both monetary and time commitment terms (Christian, 2005; Mumola, 2000). In order to visit their kin, family must first abide by strict clothing restrictions that forbids particular colors (Braman, 2004; Comfort, 2008), prohibits revealing clothing like sleeveless shirts, shorts, and skirts above the knees (Girshick, 1996), requires women to avoid bras with an underwire (Comfort, 2008), and exposes them to additional pat down or strip searches (Fishman, 1990; Girshick, 1996). Visitation also requires the availability of reliable transportation options, food for children during travel, and gas or bus tickets to the prison (Christian, 2005; Christian, Mellow, & Thomas, 2006; Fishman, 1990).

Even for those who do not visit regularly, the costs of sending packages, gifts, letters, and receiving phone calls are substantial; one study found that the poorest women spent almost one third of their income maintaining contact with an incarcerated family member (Grinstead et al., 2001). In addition to economic costs and prison-like experiences while visiting, the family members of inmates may face social stigma and judgment from peers/colleagues, teachers, and other members of the public once they are aware of the incarcerated family member (see Braman, 2002; Dallaire, Ciccone, & Wilson, 2010; Siegel, 2011). Moreover, a host of studies have examined the effects of family incarceration for two groups in particular—their partners and their children—and it is to these groups that we now turn.

Incarceration Effects on Children

Though there are numerous studies on incarcerated parents and the impact on children, there are substantial differences in the pattern of results for maternal incarceration relative to paternal incarceration; therefore the results of each are discussed separately below.

Paternal Incarceration

Existing research on incarcerated fathers is fairly consistent in demonstrating harmful effects of paternal incarceration on children across a host of important developmental outcomes. These effects are typically modest in size, though for some outcomes paternal incarceration appears to do substantial harm (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013). Studies of paternal incarceration have become increasingly rigorous recently because several large nationally representative datasets began to include blunt measures of paternal incarceration, allowing for robust quasi-experimental designs. Paternal incarceration is harmful for children’s wellbeing, mental health, behavioral problems, levels of aggression, risks of homelessness, and school readiness and performance, even when researchers account for a robust set of background characteristics in their modeling strategies. Thus, paternal incarceration appears to be a unique harm imposed on children and adds to [often substantial] preexisting disadvantages.

Research on paternal incarceration is especially robust with respect to mental health and behavioral problems. Numerous studies link paternal incarceration experiences to increases in aggression, externalizing behavioral problems, and internalizing behavioral problems; these appear to lead to higher rates of delinquency and criminal justice involvement among the their children (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012; Geller et al., 2009; Murray & Farrington, 2005; Murray, Farrington, & Sekol, 2012; Roettger & Swisher, 2011; Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013; Wildeman, 2010). Mental health and behavioral problems that result from paternal incarceration have implications for other domains as well, most notably school performance, special education placement, and early grade retention (Haskins, 2014; Turney & Haskins, 2014).

Paternal incarceration is linked to material hardship in several studies, and through this pathway, severe harms with long-lasting consequences. Schwartz-Soicher, Geller, and Garfinkel (2011) show that paternal incarceration causes a sharp increase in material hardships (for example, difficulty paying rent or paying utility bills) and Sugie (2012) shows how this leads to increases in public assistance receipt for families and children left behind. It is likely that the more severe harms of paternal incarceration for children operate through a material hardship pathway; several studies show increases in infant mortality (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013), homelessness (Wildeman, 2014), and poor birth outcomes (Dumont, Wildeman, Lee,Gjelsvik, Valera, & Clarke, 2014) following paternal incarceration.

The effects of paternal incarceration are broadly harmful, but recent work suggests important contingencies (and there are surely more to discover). The harmful effect of paternal incarceration on children’s aggression, for example, is strongest when fathers lived with their children prior to incarceration (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012). Yet, fathers often do not reside with their children pre-incarceration and are seldom the primary caretakers of their children (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Geller and colleagues (2012, p. 72) suggest that, for children with incarcerated fathers who were nonresidential pre-incarceration, aggression effects may “operate at least partially through channels unrelated to father-child contact (e.g., maternal mental health, family economic well-being, or genetic transmission).” Two recent studies suggest a pathway through maternal neglect; Turney (2014) and Wakefield (2015) find that paternal incarceration is associated with an increase in the risk of abuse, aggression, and neglect by mothers or primary caregivers. Owing to the harms it imposes and large racial disparities in imprisonment, paternal incarceration is an important explanation for rising racial disparities in childhood wellbeing during the prison boom (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013). Finally, children of violent fathers may be less harmed by paternal incarceration (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013; but see Wakefield & Powell, 2016).

Maternal Incarceration

The evidence base related to maternal incarceration is substantially different from that of paternal incarceration. In a recent report to the National Academy of Sciences, the Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration in the United States described the research evidence on maternal incarceration as deeply troubling, but lamented the small number of rigorous studies on the topic (National Research Council, 2014). In the words of the committee,

The few studies that have examined the consequences for children of incarcerated mothers tend to focus on separation from children and housing stability. These studies often find persistent disadvantage in terms of poor education and financial circumstances, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse, or a combination of these. At this time, findings on the effects of maternal incarceration on child well-being are mixed.

(National Research Council, 2014, pp. 262–263)

Properly summarizing the effects of maternal incarceration on children is difficult for a variety of reasons. First, available evidence suggests relatively more heterogeneity and instability in the experiences of children of incarcerated mothers relative to those of incarcerated fathers prior to incarceration. Second, the literature on incarcerated mothers is much narrower with respect to outcomes of interest, often focusing on mother-child separation, mental health, behavioral problems, and housing instability to the exclusion of other outcomes. It is therefore difficult to make definitive statements about maternal incarceration because research is limited and often unable to disentangle causal effects from selection processes.

The results of the small number of studies on incarcerated mothers are highly variable. Some studies show harms associated with maternal incarceration that are broadly in line with those found for paternal incarceration (e.g., Arditti, 2012; Hagan & Foster, 2012; Huebner & Gustafson, 2007); but beneficial, null, or countervailing effects are also common (Giordano, 2010; Poehlmann, 2005; Siegel, 2011; Turanovic et al., 2012; Turney & Wildeman, 2015; Wildeman & Turney, 2014). Studies with more rigorous quasi-experimental research designs tend to find null effects (e.g., Cho, 2009a, 2009b; Wildeman & Turney, 2014) but the number of incarcerated mothers in most surveys and administrative datasets is typically very small. As a result of constraints brought on by small cell sizes, most of the quantitative work on maternal incarceration is unable to test the multitude of potential contingencies, moderators, or mediators that are readily apparent in qualitative work (Arditti, 2012; Poehlmann, 2005; Siegel, 2011; Turanovic et al., 2012; but see Turney & Wildeman, 2015). Given the landscape of completed research, it is difficult to conclude that either the “broad harms” or “mostly null” position on maternal incarceration is correct, though this represents the most contentious area of research on family incarceration effects. With the exception of entry into the foster care (certainly among the most severe of harms) (Johnson & Waldfogel, 2004; Swann & Sylvester, 2006), the full array of consequences related to maternal incarceration remains unclear in the existing research literature.

Several works point to important pathways to pursue, however. The pattern of results points to substantial differences in the backgrounds of incarcerated mothers relative to incarcerated fathers, especially as they relate to the pre-incarceration experiences and circumstances of their children. Among the most studied of maternal incarceration effects is its relationship to housing instability, for example. Unlike fathers, mothers are more likely to live with their children just prior to their incarceration and tend to be primary caretakers of their children pre-incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Mumola, 2000; Snell & Morton, 1994). Mothers are also more likely than fathers to live with their children in a single-parent household (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Maternal incarceration, rather than paternal incarceration, is therefore more likely to create housing instability for children and studies show significant overlap with the child welfare system (Swann & Sylvester, 2006).

Incarcerated mothers may also have more severe substance abuse problems, mental health problems, and trauma histories (Myers & Wakefield, 2014). The instability present for the children of incarcerated mothers before imprisonment may be more severe relative to that imposed by incarcerated fathers (Giordano, 2010; Siegel, 2011) and such instability may have important implications for maternal incarceration effects. Residential parents have greater direct impacts on their children, irrespective of the nature of that influence. Put simply, the variability between maternal versus paternal incarceration effects may simply reflect the fact that parents who live with their children have more opportunities to improve the wellbeing of their children as well as opportunities to do harm.

Existing research suggests that pre-prison circumstances drive many observed outcomes but hint at a more complicated story of heterogeneity. In a study showing mostly null average effects of maternal incarceration on child wellbeing for example, Wildeman and Turney find that effects on child wellbeing are accounted for by disadvantages “preceding maternal incarceration rather than incarceration itself” (Wildeman & Turney, 2014, p. 1041; see also Shlafer, Poehlmann, & Donelan-McCall, 2012). Related work by the same set of authors finds that children who are less disadvantaged (and therefore less likely to experience maternal incarceration) may experience more harmful consequences of maternal incarceration. For other children, especially those exposed to severe disadvantage and trauma, maternal incarceration may be null or even beneficial (Turney & Wildeman, 2015).

Maternal incarceration effects depend also on whether or not incarceration results in added difficulty or introduces greater household stability. Qualitative studies detail the intense anguish associated with mother-child separation yet many of the same studies show that some children may end up in more stable homes (see, e.g., Siegel, 2011). Importantly, histories of trauma, substance use, and mental health problems loom especially large for women during the reentry process as well as for child outcomes (Arditti, 2012). Recent research also emphasizes the importance of those who care for children while their mothers are incarcerated; primary caregivers of incarcerated parents face numerous burdens and are often critical to the success or failure of the mother’s reentry process (Turanovic, Rodriguez, & Pratt, 2012; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).

Finally, incarceration is broadly stigmatizing and this stigma spills over onto children and caregivers (Schnittker & Bacak, 2013). At least one study suggests that stigma may be more substantial for children of incarcerated mothers, owing to broad gender-based expectations of mothers relative to fathers (Siegel, 2011, pp. 148–149), and several additional studies describe stigma imposed on primary caregivers of children of incarcerated parents (Turanovic et al., 2012; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Stigma imposed by parental incarceration is consequential beyond the psychic or emotional damage; Dallaire and colleagues (2010) provide experimental evidence showing that teachers view children of incarcerated mothers as less academically prepared then their peers.

Whether the effects of maternal incarceration are broadly harmful or mostly null remains an unanswerable question in the research literature. The balance of research suggests a great deal of heterogeneity among mothers and their children, and the pursuit of a “general” story may not be a fruitful one. Maternal incarceration likely exerts large effects in both directions (harmful and beneficial). The challenge for research in this area is figuring out how and for whom maternal incarceration is most consequential, what conditions are most proximal to harm or stability, and how to make sense of widely disparate findings.

Incarceration Effects on Romantic Partners

Like children, current and former romantic partners of inmates experience the spillover effects of incarceration. Research on the incarceration of a partner has developed along several lines. First, as noted in the introductory comments, incarceration of a partner typically comes with increased economic and emotional costs, especially for those who wish to remain in contact with their incarcerated partners (Braman, 2002; Christian, 2005; Christian et al., 2006; Comfort, 2008; Fishman, 1990; Girshick, 1996). Second, several qualitative studies show that incarceration of a partner may yield positive benefits if the relationship was abusive or severely dysfunctional (Turanovic et al., 2012). As with the discussion of parental incarceration, the influence of prison on romantic relationships is complex and multi-faceted. Finally, much of the research on incarceration and romantic relationships is concerned with its contribution of incarceration to family dissolution and its influence on the health and wellbeing of partners who remain free. Both are discussed in greater detail below.

Before reviewing the research on incarceration and romantic partners, note that much of the research on the consequences of incarceration for partnerships refers to incarcerated men and female partners (but see Apel, 2016; Einat, Harel-Aviram, & Rabinovitz, 2015). This is partially explained by the greater representation and data availability of men in the “inmate” category and women and children as the referent. It may also reflect differences in the partnering histories of incarcerated men and women. Incarcerated women are less often involved in stable, supportive relationships prior to imprisonment (see Nuytiens & Christiaens, 2015; Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). A very large literature describes gender differences in “pathways to prison,” showing that women are much more likely to have significant histories of trauma, abusive relationships, and sexual assault (Gilfus, 1993; Messina, Grella, Burdon, & Prendergast, 2007; Myers & Wakefield, 2014; Steffensmeier & Allan, 1996). Given the small number of incarcerated women in large surveys and the decreased likelihood of stable partnering among incarcerated women, there is much less research linking imprisonment with later relationship outcomes for incarcerated women.

Research on incarceration and family dissolution is inspired by a longer history in criminology linking marriage to desistance from crime (Laub & Sampson, 2003), at least among men. With respect to incarceration, there is better evidence that incarceration causes partner dissolution/divorce and less evidence showing that incarceration histories alone reduce the “marriageability” of former inmates. Research consistently demonstrates that incarceration during marriage is associated with marital dissolution later on (see Apel et al., 2010; Lopoo & Western, 2005; Massoglia et al., 2011; Siennick et al., 2014). For instance, an analysis of first-time incarceration of married men in the Netherlands showed long-term impacts on divorce, evident even five years after release (Apel, Blokland, Nieuwbeerta, & van Schellen, 2010). In the U.S. context, both Apel (2016) and Turney (2015) find that incarceration contributes to partner dissolution and that these effects tend to happen rather quickly. Marital dissolution is more likely with longer terms of confinement (Massoglia, Remster, & King, 2011; Turney, 2015) but also evident for short sentences (Siennick, Stewart, & Staff, 2014). The mechanisms that explain divorce effects are multifaceted, but the role of re-partnering is clear (Turney & Wildeman, 2013). In one of the few studies devoted to causal mechanisms, Siennick and her colleagues (2014) found that less marital love, more relationship violence, household economic strains, and re-partnering accounted for approximately 40% of the effect of incarceration on marital dissolution.

Evidence on marriageability is more complex and mixed. Several studies suggest a negative effect of incarceration on the likelihood of later marriage (Huebner, 2005, 2007; Lopoo & Western, 2005), albeit with some nuances to this effect. For instance, Lopoo and Western (2005) found that the likelihood of a first marriage is diminished during incarceration compared to others who are not incarcerated, but there is no effect on marriageability after release. Apel et al. (2010) finds little evidence for a marriageability hypothesis as well, showing that marriageability effects disappear within a year of release and likely reflect an incapacitation influence: “Simply put, imprisoned offenders are temporarily restrained from participation in the marriage market, and therefore require some time (but no more than 1 year) to ‘get back into the game,’ as it were” (Apel et al., 2010, p. 290).

As with maternal incarceration, marriageability is another instance where the quantitative and qualitative evidence tend to differ in emphasis and result. While there is little evidence supporting the hypothesis in rigorous quantitative analyses, qualitative research often highlights the diminished marriageability of black and disadvantaged men as a result of their disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system. Scholars suggest that incarceration results in a “marriage squeeze” because of shifts in the gender ratio of available partners (Bennett, Bloom, & Craig, 1989). Through his ethnographic work, Braman (2002, p. 123) found that the skewed gender ratios in high incarceration contexts encourage women to “enter into relationships with men who are already attached” and encourages men to “enter relationships with multiple women.”

Finally, a related line of research examines the influence of incarceration on the health and wellbeing of partners. Again, much of this research is focused on the health consequences for women when their male partner is incarcerated. In contrast, health research on incarcerated women is more firmly focused on the mental health and traumas they bring with them to prison. With respect to the former, incarceration of a male partner is associated with maternal depression (Wildeman, Schnittker, & Turney, 2012), substantial material hardship (Schwartz-Soicher, Geller, & Garfinkel 2011), and intense stress. The consequences for physical health are no less severe. Lee, Wildeman, Wang, Matusko, and Jackson (2014) link paternal incarceration to physical health deficits in their partners. More troubling, incarceration effects such as these may partially explain racial disparities in infant mortality rates in the United States (Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013). Similar inequality effects are apparent with HIV infection—Johnson and Raphael (2009) find that racial disparities in incarceration wholly explain growing gaps in rates of HIV infection between white women and black women.

Overall, the evidence is clear that incarceration weakens families and causes mental and physical health problems in the partners and children left behind. There is less evidence showing that incarceration histories reduce the attractiveness of potential partners in marriage markets (and what evidence exists tends to use very different methods and samples to arrive at an answer). Note, however, that much of this research is focused on incarcerated men and their female partners and children. In the next section, the challenges and complications of research on family life and incarceration are explored and suggestions are offered for moving the field forward.

Review of Literature and Future Directions

Despite greater interest in incarceration effects on family life, our review suggests that the literature is somewhat fractured and often not in conversation across disciplines or methods. Some of this disconnection results from the widely varying fields that have examined incarceration and family life. Early works on the effects of parental incarceration largely began in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, and social work (see Sack & Seidler, 1978; Sack, Seidler, & Thomas, 1976). This work often examined the emotional and behavioral problems associated with the incarceration of a family member, often focused on offering advice for practitioners (see, e.g., Cummings, 1978). Research on family incarceration is also intellectually linked to a long history in criminology on the transmission of crime from parent to child. In recent years, scholarship on family life and incarceration has expanded to developmental psychology, sociology, family demography, and criminology or criminal justice, even biology, among others—all fields that approach their scholarly project differently, prioritize different outcomes, and employ varying methods.

Work on incarceration and family life by psychologists has tended to adopt family process theories and focus on stress at the level of the family. This work is more often focused on mothers and the psychological impacts of incarceration for themselves and others. Sociological research has emphasized material disadvantage, and demographic work is more focused on family structure, health, and racial inequality. These scholarly foci likely explain the relative emphasis among sociologists and family demographers on paternal incarceration. Such disciplinary differences in emphasis are exacerbated by gaps in results between quasi-experimental survey research and inductive interview designs.

Gaps related to method employed are particularly evident in maternal incarceration research. A significant portion of the literature on maternal incarceration is devoted to the estimation of causal effects, disagreement about the role of effect heterogeneity, and the relative importance of “average” effects. Such debates highlight important tradeoffs between the pursuit of broadly representative results that may drive policy and deep knowledge that can tell us where policy interventions may fail or who best to target. We take no position on these debates here, except to say that efforts to bring together diverse scholars with varying perspectives would be a welcome foundation for the next generation of incarceration and family life research.

More broadly, we offer several suggestions for future researchers to pursue. First, research on incarceration and family life is fundamentally constrained by a lack of high quality data. Most large surveys do not allow researchers to reliably distinguish between a few days in jail from a long prison term, limit analyses of maternal incarceration, and offer no information on the conditions of confinement. Intensive interview studies are limited by small sample sizes and offer depth at the cost of representativeness. None of this is new, of course, but it is difficult to imagine our current sources of data offering many new examples of causal effects while also accounting for the widespread effect of heterogeneity that is readily implied in qualitative studies. As the first author has argued in more detail elsewhere (Wakefield, 2016; Wakefield, Lee, & Wildeman, 2016), the absence of detailed information on the wide variety of incarceration experiences makes little sense in an era of mass incarceration and known social harms to families.

Second, related to the last point, we ought to expand our examination of family life effects to other family members. With few exceptions (but see Comfort, 2016; Turney, 2014; Wildeman & Wakefield, 2014), much of our research is focused only on partners and children. Little research examines the incarceration of other family members or the concentration of incarceration in families—yet research on the concentration of incarceration in neighborhoods shows just how important these effects should be for families and children (Clear, 2007). Along the same lines, sustained examination of the concentration of crime and punishment in kinship networks would offer useful information on the cumulative disadvantages imposed by mass incarceration.

Third, knowledge would be gained by more comparative work across penal cultures. In a cross-national comparison of incarceration effects, Murray, Bijleveld, Farrington, and Loeber (2014) suggest that more rehabilitative criminal justice systems moderate the destructive effects of parental incarceration on children. For instance, Sweden is characterized by its reintegrative criminal justice system. in which incarcerated individuals are to be “treated with consideration for their human dignity” (Pratt, 2008, p. 130), catering to the best interests of incarcerated individuals and their families (Murray et al., 2014; Pratt, 2008). In the United States, higher risks of offending for sons are associated with parental incarceration (compared to convicted and not incarcerated), but this is not the case for sons in Sweden (Murray et al., 2014). In contrast, in the Netherlands more harmful effects of incarceration were associated with the transition from a rehabilitative emphasis in the 1960s and 1970s to a more punitive penal system in the 1970s and 1980s (Murray et al., 2014). Work on family life and incarceration has benefited from comparisons to England (Murray et al., 2014; Murray & Farrington, 2005), the Netherlands (Apel et al., 2010), and Denmark (Andersen, 2016), among others, but more comparisons are needed. The harmful effects of incarceration for family life might not be as severe (and perhaps even in the direction of benefit) in contexts where imprisonment is confined to persistent or violent offenders, in contexts with healthier social safety nets, or in less retributive contexts. Comparisons of the sort described above would advance basic science considerably, as well as aid criminal justice reform efforts in the United States.

Finally, research must be attentive to how familial relations and circumstances prior to the incarceration are carried through arrest, conviction, sentencing, incarceration, and reentry. This includes, for example, the duration and extent of prior offending behaviors, as well as the degree and quality of familial contact and communication prior to and during the family member’s incarceration (see Mowen & Visher, 2016). Many studies on family life and incarceration conflate pre-prison instability with incarceration effects. Still others are unable to differentiate effects due to pre-trial detention, conviction, and imprisonment. Incarceration experiences and the conditions of confinement also remain a [very large] black box. We have written of “incarceration effects” throughout this review, but this language obscures substantial variation in incarceration experiences. While most observers acknowledge that short periods of confinement in a jail differ from long sentences to state or federal prison, we would argue that even inmates in the same unit, prison, or state carceral regime may have very different experiences. These differences are likely to have important implications for inmates’ partners and children.

Work on family life and incarceration is at a crossroads. It is clear that incarceration imposes substantial burdens on families, especially in an era of mass incarceration. Creative researchers have linked incarceration to a host of outcomes and detailed the great variety of ways incarceration may change, worsen, or complicate family life. The next steps will be more difficult. Despite substantial research efforts and many studies, relatively few of them are easily translated into actionable policy guidance. Many questions remain—most related to heterogeneity and variation—and they are more easily asked than answered with available resources and data sources. Happily, both government agencies and private foundations are leveraging significant resources to the task, and criminal justice reform is a central feature of public discussion after decades of limited attention. The central challenge for researchers going forward will be how to best leverage new sources of information and innovative methods to synthesize and add to the results presented here.

Further Reading

Condry, R. (2007). Families shamed: The consequences of crime for relatives of serious offenders. Portland, OR: Willan.Find this resource:

    Comfort, M. (2008). Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the prison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

      Foster, H., & Hagan, J. (2015). Punishment regimes and the multilevel effects of parental incarceration: Intergenerational, intersectional, and interinstitutional models of social inequality and systemic exclusion. Annual Review of Sociology, 41, 135–158.Find this resource:

        Giordano, P. C. (2010). Legacies of crime: A follow-up of children of highly delinquent girls and boys. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

          Hagan, J., & Foster, H. (2012). Intergenerational educational effects of mass imprisonment. Sociology of Education, 83(3), 259–286.Find this resource:

            Harris, A., Evans, H., & Beckett, K. (2010). Drawing blood from stones: Legal debt and social inequality in the contemporary United States. American Journal of Sociology, 115(6), 1753–1799.Find this resource:

              Kruttschnitt, C. (2010). The paradox of women’s imprisonment. Daedalus, 139(3), 32–42.Find this resource:

                Lageson, S. (2016). Found out and opting out: The consequences of online criminal records for families. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665(1), 127–141.Find this resource:

                  Lee, H., McCormick, T., Hicken, M., & Wildeman, C. (2015). Racial inequalities and connectedness to imprisoned individuals in the United States. Du Bois Review, 12(2), 269–282.Find this resource:

                    Massoglia, M., Remster, B., & King, R. D. (2011). Stigma or separation? Understanding the incarceration-divorce relationship. Social Forces, 90, 133–155.Find this resource:

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