Strategies for Building Healthy Relationship Skills Among Couples Affected by Incarceration. Strategies for Building Healthy Relationship Skills Among Couples Affected by Incarceration


Very little programming has focused on strengthening families affected by incarceration, despite the importance of familial ties for incarcerated persons and the many challenges to maintaining family relationships during incarceration and reentry. Strong partnerships and parenting relationships are linked to reentry success, including decreased recidivism, among justice-involved men (Bersani, Laub, & Nieuwbeerta, 2009; Visher, Knight, Chalfin, & Roman, 2009).  Yet little attention is given to the need for learning skills that can strengthen marriages and other intimate relationships.  Incarceration offers an opportunity for confined individuals and their partners to learn relationship skills that may allow them to better communicate, resolve conflicts, and increase their commitment to one another.  These skills could play an important role in maintaining healthy relationships throughout incarceration and during the challenging reentry process.

The Responsible Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Strengthening Grants for Incarcerated and Reentering Fathers and Their Partners (MFS-IP) were designed to support healthy relationships, parenting, and economic stability for families affected by incarceration.  Under the MFS-IP initiative, 12 organizations[1] were funded from fiscal years 2006 through 2011 to provide services that promote or sustain healthy relationships and strengthen families in which one parent was incarcerated or otherwise involved with the criminal justice system (e.g., recently released from incarceration or on parole or probation).  Grantees, listed in Table 1, were required to deliver services to support healthy marriage and could also choose to provide services intended to improve parenting and build economic stability.

Table 1.
Funded Sites and Type of Grantee Agency
Site Location Type of Grantee Agency
Centerforce San Rafael, California Community-based nonprofit
Child and Family Services of New Hampshire Manchester, New Hampshire Community-based nonprofit
Indiana Department of Correction) Indianapolis, Indiana State correctional agency
Lutheran Social Services of South Dakota Sioux Falls, South Dakota Faith-based organization
Maryland Department of Human Resources Baltimore, Maryland State human services agency
Minnesota Council on Crime and Justice Minneapolis, Minnesota Community-based nonprofit
New Jersey Department of Corrections Trenton, New Jersey State correctional agency
Oakland Livingston Human Services Association Pontia, Michigan Community-based nonprofit
The Osborne Association Brooklyn, New York Community-based nonprofit
The RIDGE Project Defiance, Ohio Faith-based organization
Shelby County Division of Correction Memphis, Tennessee County correctional agency
Texas Arms of Love, d.b.a. People of Principle Odessa, Texas Community-based nonprofit

In accordance with grant requirements, all MFS-IP grantees delivered a relationship education curriculum as a core program component.  In addition, most grantees also delivered parenting education courses.  Other program components varied widely among the grantees and included

  • visitation support to help families maintain contact during incarceration (child-friendly visitation facilities, financial and logistical support for visitation, and special visitation assistance such as video visiting programs),
  • family group conferencing or family counseling,
  • case management or other individualized approaches to connect participants with needed services,
  • economic stability services (employment assistance, financial literacy classes, general equivalency diploma [GED] or higher education classes),
  • support groups,
  • substance abuse treatment,
  • domestic violence courses or workshops, and
  • other group courses or workshops (such as cognitive behavioral training, life skills education, and empowerment education).

Beyond a limited number of basic requirements, grantees could design their programs to reflect local needs and operational contexts.  No one program model was required for MFS-IP grantees, and the sites varied widely in the program components delivered and the service delivery approaches implemented.  Some grantees delivered their MFS-IP programs in a tiered manner, such that courses were offered in a series with completion of a prerequisite course (e.g., a batterer intervention, parenting, or introductory healthy relationships course) required for the participant to go on to a subsequent course, or that intensive individualized services (e.g., visitation support, family group conferencing, or case management) were available only to participants who had first completed a core course.  In contrast, other programs delivered their services to all participants as a standard set of services.  In addition, some grantees enrolled only couples in their programs, whereas others allowed men to participate in the program (or certain components of the program) without enrolled partners.

This research brief summarizes the MFS-IP grantees strategies for implementing the relationship education component, a central focus for all programs.  Previous research briefs produced from the national evaluation of the MFS-IP initiative focused on the primary implementation barriers encountered by grantees in implementing their programs: delivering services in correctional settings and recruiting partners to participate in programming (see Smiley McDonald, Herman-Stahl, Lindquist, Bir, & McKay, 2009; McKay et al., 2009).  These barriers were encountered in delivering the MFS-IP program in general as well as the relationship education component in particular; however, the discussion of implementation challenges is not repeated in the current brief.[2]

This brief focuses specifically on the strategies used among the grantees to teach relationship skills, including the format, curricula, and key adaptations made to maximize relevance for incarcerated and reentering program participants.  The brief is based on data gathered for the implementation study component of the MFS-IP initiative national evaluation.  Data sources include site visits conducted by the evaluation team to each site in years 1, 2, and 4 (with telephone interviews conducted in year 3), in which the team interviewed key stakeholders, observed programmatic activities, and obtained copies of written program materials.

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