Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 1. Policy Background


There are almost 2.3 million individuals in U.S. jails and prisons and more than 798,000 people on parole.

The number of individuals involved in the criminal justice system is at a historic high. More stringent sentencing standards for felons, harsher laws on drug-related activity, and more aggressive prosecution practices have combined to bring an unprecedented number of Americans under correctional supervision (Western & McLenahan, 2000; Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Western & Beckett, 1999). Over the last 25 years, the number of incarcerated persons has increased four-fold (Baer et al., 2005). As of June 2007, there were 2,299,116 people incarcerated in federal and state prisons and local jails. An additional 4,237,000 persons were on probation and another 798,200 were on parole. The number of sentenced prisoners per 100,000 U.S. residents increased from 501 to 509 between year-end 2006 and midyear 2007 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008). Most individuals leave behind intimate partners and children when they go to prison, and this separation can have negative repercussions on family life.

Social policies that address the intersection of incarceration and family life have emerged at the federal, state, and local levels. Family strengthening policies, including the federal Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grants administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, are supported by research indicating the benefits of healthy relationships and involved fatherhood. Happily married individuals are more likely to report good physical and psychological health than unmarried persons. They also are more likely to be positively engaged in work and other productive activities and are less likely to smoke, drink heavily, and be physically inactive compared with their unmarried counterparts (Schoenborn, 2004). A good marriage is even associated with greater happiness, life satisfaction, and longevity (Coombs, 1991; Seeman, 1996).

Stable parental relationships also confer many advantages to children: Children residing in households with two married, biologic or adoptive parents show superior outcomes in socioemotional adjustment and academic achievement compared with children from single-or step-parent households (Mosley & Thomson, 1995; Nord, Brimhall, & West, 1997). Children growing up in families with healthy marriages are, on average, more likely to report positive mental and physical health, avoid drugs and alcohol, do well in school, and go to college. They are less likely to experience poverty, suffer physical and sexual abuse, and develop emotional or behavioral problems (Amato, 2005; Doherty & Anderson, 2004; Parke, 2003). Research indicates that two-parent families may help promote child resilience by providing a higher standard of living, offering more effective parenting strategies, and decreasing children’s exposure to stressful circumstances. Thus, healthy relationship and family strengthening policies may be one route for reducing child poverty and enhancing child well-being (Family Strengthening Policy Center, 2005).

Concurrent with the development of family strengthening programs, criminal justice policy has increasingly promoted “second chance” initiatives for incarcerated men and women upon release. One example of such a policy is the Department of Justice’s Serious and Violent Offender Re-entry Initiative (SVORI), which in 2003 funded states and local communities to develop educational programs, training, and reentry strategies to reduce recidivism and promote healthy outcomes, including strong marriages, for ex-offenders. The Department of Labor’s Prison Reentry Initiative (PRI) of 2004 also expanded reentry supports for newly released prisoners by funding local faith- and community-based organizations to offer housing, employment and mentoring programs to releasees (Department of Labor, 2007). Research reveals that partners of incarcerated men face financial strains and emotional difficulties. Moreover, children of incarcerated parents face a higher risk of experiencing poverty as well as social, emotional, and learning problems (Parke & Clarke-Stewart, 2001). However, incarcerated men and their families rarely receive family strengthening programs despite research that indicates that positive family relationships are linked with lower rates of recidivism (Visher & Travis, 2003).

Recognizing a joint policy issue for the human services and criminal justice community, the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), in collaboration with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), convened an expert panel in 2002 concerning the effect of incarceration on children and families. Summary findings from this panel reveal the dearth of research on family issues among incarcerated individuals. They point to large research gaps including little understanding of the needs of families with an incarcerated father, what works to promote healthy relationship skills and positive parenting among incarcerated men, and how to deliver and evaluate family strengthening programs within the criminal justice system (Festen, Waul, Solomon & Travis, 2002).

Motivated by the increasing number of imprisoned parents and the lack of focus on family relationships in existing reentry programs and policies (Day, Acock, Bahr & Arditti, 2005), HHS established, as a priority area under the Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood provisions of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (P.L. 109-171),  Marriage, and Family Strengthening Grants for Incarcerated Fathers and Their Partners (MFS-IP). MFS-IP’s overarching goal is to enhance marital relations and parenting skills among men currently incarcerated or under criminal justice supervision. This resource document provides an overview of the current research underlying MFS-IP and addresses issues concerning incarcerated men, their partner and parenting relationships, and the policies and programs that may assist them in their rehabilitation in prison and after release.

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