Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families


  • The number of individuals involved in the criminal justice system is at a historic high. There are almost 2.3 million individuals in U.S. jails and prisons and more than 798,000 people on parole. It is estimated that 7,476,500 children have a parent who is in prison, in jail or under correctional supervision.
  • Minority children are disproportionately affected by father imprisonment: In state prisons, 42% of fathers are African American, and African American children are seven and a half times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children (6.7% vs. 0.9%).
  • Only 23% of state prisoners are married, but many are involved in intimate or co-parenting relationships.
  • Father incarceration negatively affects family life. Spouses/partners face serious financial strains, social isolation and stigma, loneliness, and negative emotions such as anger and resentment.
  • Children of incarcerated fathers also may experience numerous life stressors, including caregiver changes, increased poverty, and involvement with the child welfare system, in addition to the pain of parental separation. These stressors have been linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression, learning problems, and aggression.
  • Fathers in prison face a host of problems that limit their ability to be successful at reentry including substance abuse, mental illness, low educational attainment, and poor employment histories.
  • Most men plan to live with their families upon release, and those who report positive family and parenting relationships during reentry are less likely to recidivate. Family support services during incarceration and after release are an important strategy for increasing criminal desistance, yet family strengthening services are often a neglected aspect of rehabilitation.
  • Marriage and relationship enhancement interventions in prison show promise in reducing negative interactions and in improving communication skills and relationship satisfaction.
  • Findings from evaluations of parenting programs in prison also are encouraging: inmates involved in such programs indicate improved attitudes about the importance of fatherhood, increased parenting skills, and more frequent contact with their children.
  • To be successful, family strengthening services for prisoners require coordination between criminal justice and human service agencies, which often have divergent goals and contrasting perspectives. Success is also tied to effective linkages between prisons and community partners.
  • Obstacles to family strengthening efforts during incarceration and re-entry include distance between place of imprisonment and reentry community, difficulties in recruiting and retaining prisoners, inhospitable visiting rules, unsupportive extended family relations, and barriers to partner and child involvement such as transportation difficulties, busy schedules, and relationship strain.
  • The evidence for marital partner education and parenting programs is just beginning to accumulate. This evidence is hampered by a lack of rigorous evaluation methods. Studies have rarely employed randomized controlled trials, which are the gold standard for program evaluation. Program assessments also have had limited follow-ups to assess the maintenance of behavioral change and frequently rely on non-standardized measures and self-reports to document change.
  • Effective social policies are critical for reducing recidivism and decreasing the negative effects of incarceration on children and families.