Incarceration & the Family: A Review of Research & Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers & Families: The Effects of Incarceration on Intimate Partner Relationships


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

The Effects of Incarceration on Intimate Partner Relationships

[ Main Page of Report | Contents of Report ]


  1. Decreased Likelihood of Marriage and Family Involvement
  2. Impact of Imprisonment on Intimacy and Commitment
    1. Barriers to Contact and Communication
    2. Role Changes
    3. Psychological Changes
  3. Economic and Emotional Strains Associated with Single Parenting
  4. Community-Level Effects
  5. Positive Perceptions of Partner Incarceration from Women
  6. Research Limitations

3.1   Decreased Likelihood of Marriage and Family Involvement

Chapter 3 focuses on the mechanisms through which incarceration takes a toll on intimate relations by reducing mens opportunities for marriage and creating barriers to intimacy, family involvement, and economic contribution.

Incarceration is a profoundly stressful event that significantly affects the prisoner, his partner, and his children.

Incarceration greatly reduces the likelihood that men and women will marry. Analysis of data from both the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) and the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study indicates that men with a history of incarceration are much less likely to marry compared with men with no incarceration history (Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2004). Huebner (2005) analyzed a subsample of 4,591 adult men who were interviewed 15 times between 1983 and 2000. Using hierarchical linear modeling, she estimated that current incarceration reduced the likelihood of marriage by 39% and prior incarceration reduced the likelihood by 8%. Huebners (2007) analysis of the same dataset found that incarceration had a differential effect on marriage likelihood by race. Incarceration was associated with a 59% decrease in likelihood of marriage among whites, compared to 30% among African Americans and 41% among Latinos.

Western and McLanahan (2000) explored incarceration and marriage likelihood using data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study. Their analyses were based on 400 mothers and fathers interviewed in Oakland, California, and Austin, Texas. They found that men who had never been incarcerated were twice as likely to marry compared with ex-inmates (Western & McLanahan, 2000). In addition, ex-inmates were 50% less likely to be involved with their childs mother one year after their childs birth (Western & McLanahan, 2000). Incarceration history decreased the odds of cohabitation by 70% per self-reports from interviewed women. This relationship is especially pronounced for African American families (Western & McLanahan, 2000). Only 8% of African American men with a prior incarceration were married to their partner a year after the birth of their child. Incarceration is estimated to account for 15% of absentee African American fathers (Western & McLanahan, 2000; Western, 2004).

By age 40, approximately 87% of nonoffending men were married compared with only 40% of men with a history of incarceration.

Using NLSY data, Western (2004) analyzed the marriage rates of men from ages 18 to 40. He found that by age 26, 46% of men with no criminal history were married, while this was true of only 25% of men who had been involved in the penal system. The gap widened as men aged: by age 40, approximately 87% of nonoffending men were married compared with only 40% of men with a history of incarceration.

Western (2004) posited that several mechanisms are responsible for the low marriage rate among ex-inmates: incapacitation, stigma, and economic disadvantage. Incapacitation refers to mens inability to meet women as a result of being incarcerated, as well as the constraints placed on inmates ability to form intimate bonds both during and after release. In addition, the desirability of ex-inmates as marital partners is often decreased by the stigma associated with their criminal histories. Ethnographic interviews with low-income women in Philadelphia suggest that a womans decision to marry is partly based on her perception of her partners social respectability and trustworthinesscharacteristics often found to be lacking in men with a history of incarceration (Edin, 2000).

Incarceration also diminishes the likelihood of marriage because of the poor economic prospects of ex-inmates. Incarceration has a large negative effect on mens employability. A history of incarceration reduces wages, increases the risk for unemployment, and decreases job stability (Western, 2004). Analyses of the NLSY indicate that incarceration is associated with a 66% decline in employment (Huebner, 2005), and many men released from prison struggle with finding stable employment because of their low education and job skills, as well as discrimination by employers (Visher & Travis, 2003). Poor economic prospects have a significant dampening effect on marriage, as most couples desire financial stability before commitment (Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005).

The risk of divorce is also very high for those with an incarceration history. Married men in prison reach the national 50% divorce rate much more quickly than do men in the general population (Western, 2004).

[ Go to Contents ]

3.2   Impact of Imprisonment on Intimacy and Commitment

It is difficult to carry out intimate relationships from prison. Barriers to contact and communication, transformations in family roles, and psychological changes due to detainment impede the development and maintenance of intimacy and commitment.

3.2.1   Barriers to Contact and Communication

Limited visiting hours, lack of privacy, and restrictions on movement and physical contact diminish the efforts men and women make to stay connected.

Many prisoners are housed far away from their families. The cost of visitation and the inhospitable prison environment may further inhibit efforts to maintain contact. Limited visiting hours, lack of privacy, and restrictions on movement and physical contact diminish the efforts men and women do make to stay connected (Fishman, 1990; Hairston, Rollin, & Jo, 2004). In interviews with 51 men in minimum security prison in Utah and Oregon, 65% of the men reported that they received no visits from their spouse or partner while in prison (Day et al., 2005).

The limited time for visitation can place undue pressure on what needs to be accomplished during these brief episodes of communication. Fishman (1990) sheds light on the range and intensity of emotions felt during these visits. Women reported feelings of intense anger, attachment, remorse, and resentment, as well as vicious fighting and passionate reconciliation. Fishman conducted repeated qualitative interviews with 65 men and 30 of their wives in prison in Vermont to examine the effect of incarceration on men and their families. She found that womens experiences during visitation varied widely. Some perceived visits as opportunities for renewed courtship, while others found the visits to be stressful and unfulfilling. In many cases, the relationship felt one-sided to the women, who were supporting their partners emotionally and materially but sometimes getting little in return (Fishman, 1990).

3.2.2   Role Changes

Examination of Fishmans qualitative interview results revealed that relationships were sometimes compromised by the changes in roles that resulted from the mens absence. Women often became the major decision maker and head of the household, although some women tried to mitigate these changes by saving decisions for discussion during prison visits (Fishman, 1990). To counter changes in traditional gender roles, imprisoned men may seek unhealthy ways to assert their power, including entangling their partner in criminal activities by demanding that they bring in contraband or that they step into their former role in the drug trade. Men also may use dominance and threats to control women. Harassment and even violence have been reported during prison visits as men worry about losing their roles as husband and father in the family (Fishman, 1990; Nurse, 2002).

3.2.3   Psychological Changes

The psychological changes necessary to survive in prison may impede the development of intimate relationships.

Harsh prison policies, rigid routines, deprivation of privacy and liberty, and a stressful environment all take their toll on mens psychological development. Inmates must adapt to unnatural living conditions, and these changes often conflict with the personality characteristics needed to sustain intimate relationships with partners and children. Because of the loss of autonomy, many men experience diminished capacity for decision making and greater dependence on outside sources. The prison environment also leads to hyper-vigilance as men worry about their safety, and this may result in interpersonal distrust and psychological distancing. The prison mask is a common syndrome that develops; the mask is the emotional flatness men take on when they suppress emotions and withdraw from healthy social interactions. To survive in an often brutal environment, prisoners may develop hyper-masculinity, which glorifies force and domination in relations with others. Finally, many prisoners are plagued by feelings of low self-worth and symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (Haney, 2001). All of these psychological changes, which may be necessary for survival in the prison environment, can impede intimate relationships.

[ Go to Contents ]

3.3   Economic and Emotional Strains Associated with Single Parenting

Marital and partner bonds are also weakened by economic strain. The majority of families affected by incarceration are of low income (Mumola, 2000), and the mens earnings are important for making ends meet (even though some of those earnings may come from illegal sources). At the time of their arrest, 61% of fathers incarcerated in state prison were employed full-time and 12% were employed part-time or occasionally. However, 27% of incarcerated fathers in state prison report that the source of their income in the month prior to their arrest was illegal (Mumola, 2000). As noted earlier, 54% of fathers in state prison reported providing the primary financial support for their children prior to incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008).

The loss of direct income can create a significant burden on struggling families, especially when it is combined with the additional costs associated with arrest and imprisonment, including attorney fees, collect calls from prison, and the expenses of traveling to the prison and providing material goods for the inmate (Arditti, 2005). According to qualitative research conducted by Arditti, Lambert-Shute, and Joest (2003), the proportion of women working actually declined (from 89% to 64%) after their partners were incarcerated because of the need for childcare and other issues. Furthermore, many women had to go on public assistance as a result of their partners incarceration.

For single mothers, the stress of financial hardship has been linked with psychological distress, negative parenting behaviors, and poor child outcomes (McLoyd, 1998). Single parenthood due to incarceration is a role taken on involuntarily, and anger and resentment about this new situation may weaken commitment to the imprisoned partner. Parenting also may become more challenging because many children whose parents are imprisoned show elevated rates of internalizing and externalizing problems (Jose-Kampfner, 1995; Murray & Farrington, 2005). Many women with an incarcerated partner see a reduction in available social support to cope with the stress associated with their partners imprisonment as friends and family withdraw because of the stigma (Arditti et al., 2003). In addition, incarceration is marked as an ambiguous loss because the partners absence is not publicly mourned or socially validated. This can lead to exacerbated grief and the phenomenon of being a prison widow (Arditti et al., 2003).

[ Go to Contents ]

3.4   Community-Level Effects

In neighborhoods with a high rate of arrest and release, the influence of incarceration can spread beyond the individual and the family and spill over into the community (Western & McLanahan, 2000). High incarceration rates can destabilize communities by increasing the number of families headed by low-income single mothers, stripping the community of much-needed fiscal resources, upsetting kin networks, and reducing informal social control, particularly over young adolescent males. Collective efficacya communitys capacity to regulate socially acceptable behavioris diminished by the disruption of incarceration (Sampson, Raudenbush, & Earls, 1997). The cycles of incarceration and release, combined with low collective efficacy, can result in even higher crime rates in the future, as subsequent generations are unable to prosper (Western, 2004). This fragmentation of community has been particularly harmful to African American communities who face disproportionately high rates of imprisonment exacerbated by racial inequities in drug laws (Clayton & Moore, 2003).

High incarceration rates can destabilize communities by increasing the number of families headed by low-income single mothers and reducing informal social control over adolescents.

[ Go to Contents ]

3.5   Positive Perceptions of Partner Incarceration from Women

Although most women report incarceration as a negative event, some experience positive changes as a result of their partners imprisonment. If a partner has been abusive toward the woman and/or children, his imprisonment is often a relief. Having a partner locked up also can be advantageous if criminal involvement was endangering the home life or if money was being drained from the family resources for drugs. Some women view this time away from their partner with hope, anticipating that the men will look upon prison as an opportunity for self-improvement and learn to appreciate their partners devotion. Others use this time to conclude that they do not want to reunite. Women who have experienced domestic or family violence are the most likely to want to terminate the relationship (Fishman, 1990; Hairston & Oliver, 2006).

[ Go to Contents ]

3.6   Research Limitations

Although the aforementioned literature provides descriptions of, and critical insights into, the types of challenges faced when couples are separated by imprisonment, this information was gathered largely through qualitative methods such as interviews and focus groups with small, nonrepresentative samples. These methods provide rich descriptions useful for informing public policy; however, more quantitative (and qualitative) research is needed using large, random samples of men in federal and state prisons and their partners in the community. These studies should use standardized measures to assess the degree to which prisoners (and their partners) differ from the general population in characteristics relevant to family life and well-being. Research involving couples from different racial/ethnic groups is important to inform culturally competent interventions and policies. Moreover, longitudinal research that follows individuals and their partners over time is critically needed. Prospective research will allow us to make causal inferences about the effects of the prison experience on the couple relationship. We are currently hindered from identifying any cause-and-effect relationships because of the correlational nature of the available data.

Where to?

Top of Page | Contents
Main Page of Report | Contents of Report

Home Pages:
Human Services Policy (HSP)
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)