Incarceration and the Family: A Review of Research and Promising Approaches for Serving Fathers and Families. 5.5 Conflict and Domestic Violence


Although many ex-offenders have a history of violence, little is known about reentry and domestic violence (Hairston & Oliver, 2006). Given the high rate of substance use, which has been consistently associated with domestic violence, it is likely that domestic violence will be an issue for a subsample of released men and their partners. African American women and those whose partners have a history of violence are at highest risk during reentry (Hairston & Oliver, 2006).

In a qualitative study focused on men returning home, some ex-inmates believed violence against women was justified.

Reuniting partners often face many points of conflict including suspected infidelity, differences in how children should be raised, and the threat of new relationships women may have developed during their partner’s absence (Fishman, 1990; Hairston & Oliver, 2006). Conflict—especially conflict that occurs in conjunction with alcohol or drug use—can easily escalate to violence. Perceptions of low self-efficacy in relationships have been linked to under- and un-employment which is common among released prisoners (Babcock, Waltz, Jacobson, & Gottman, 1993). Changes to men’s sense of power and self esteem that occur during imprisonment also may elevate risk for violence against women. In a qualitative study focused on men returning home, some ex-inmates believed violence against women was justified in order to gain control in the relationship (Hairston & Oliver, 2006). Violence against intimate partners is both a tactic to suppress woman’s voices and a way to vent frustration (Jewkes 2002).

Intense treatment is needed for men with histories of family violence, and reunion with families should be treated with caution if women and children face any risk of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. Not all batterers can and should be reunited with their partners; thus, family strengthening programs should include screening for domestic violence and safety planning (Bauer et al., 2007). The goal of family strengthening efforts with this population must not be reunification at all costs, but the provision of interventions in situations where there is a reasonable likelihood of benefits.

Batterer interventions generally emphasize cognitive behavioral techniques and address power and control issues. Marital education approaches that emphasize skill development such as anger management, conflict resolution, negotiation, problem solving, and empathy may not be sufficient for this population. Batterer interventions based within a cognitive-behavioral paradigm target irrational “self-talk” that fuels abusive incidents. Negative/aggressive thoughts are identified and linked to feelings and behaviors. The batterer learns to pre-empt the escalation of negative thoughts using cognitive reframing and relaxation. Interventions grounded in feminist theory (Johnson, 1995) address the influence of the traditional patriarchal family structure, social constructions of masculinity and femininity, and asymmetry in male and female power (Johnson, 1995). From this perspective, men’s violence is perceived as being rooted in a need to achieve power and control (Jewkes, 2002; Tilley & Brackley, 2005). Several batterer interventions utilize the “Power and Control Wheel,” which illustrates how male power is demonstrated through control tactics such as minimizing, blaming, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, and economic threats. These abusive strategies are countered by teaching critical thinking skills, confrontational group processes, accountability-focused group therapy, and empathy and moral development (Healey, Smith, & O’Sullivan, 1998). However, the efficacy of batterer interventions has been shown to be modest at best (Babcock & LaTaillade, 2000).

 More research is needed to increase understanding of how to reduce the risks of domestic violence using skill-building cognitive-behavioral techniques, and power/control paradigms within the continuum of services provided to incarcerated men (Bauer et al., 2007). The availability of effective domestic violence prevention programming is crucial to providing a safe context for any family strengthening approaches undertaken with this population.

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