Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 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 men’s 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%. Huebner’s (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 child’s mother one year after their child’s 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 men’s 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 woman’s decision to marry is partly based on her perception of her partner’s social respectability and trustworthiness—characteristics 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 men’s 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).

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