Incarceration Effects

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Incarceration Effects

Lawmakers across the political spectrum, in some countries such as the United States, have begun to re-examine the policies that led to the massive growth in incarceration over the last generation. Incarceration is costly, the evidence for its deterrence value is mixed, and it has disproportionately affected people who are poor and (in the United States) black, exacerbating existing social inequities. There is also increased attention being paid to the negative effects of incarceration on already-disadvantaged communities.

Incarceration Effects on Families

In an article, Comfort argues that, through “their association with someone convicted of a crime, legally innocent people have firsthand and often intense contact with criminal justice authorities and correctional facilities, they experience variants of the direct and indirect consequences of incarceration, and they are confronted by the paradox of a penal state.” [1]

Incarceration Effects on Children

Children do not often figure in discussions of incarceration, but new research finds more than five million U.S. children have had at least one parent in prison at one time or another-about three times higher than earlier estimates that included only children with a parent currently incarcerated. This proportion is higher among black, poor, and rural children.

There is a substantial body of literature detailing the negative implications of parental incarceration for child well-being. Research has linked parental incarceration to childhood health problems, including asthma, depression, and anxiety; acting-out behavior; grade retention; stigma; and, in adulthood, an increased likelihood of poor mental or physical health.

In some cases there can be positive effects when a parent is incarcerated, namely, when the parent is abusive or otherwise poses a danger to the child (through substance abuse, for example). Nonetheless, most research finds negative outcomes associated with incarceration. [2]

There are some differences between maternal incarceration and paternal incarceration.

Paternal Incarceration

Maternal Incarceration

In a 2014 report to the National Academy of Sciences, the Committee on the Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration in the United States said that the “few studies that have examined the consequences for children of incarcerated mothers tend to focus on separation from children and housing stability. These studies often find persistent disadvantage in terms of poor education and financial circumstances, substance abuse, mental illness, domestic abuse, or a combination of these. At this time, findings on the effects of maternal incarceration on child well-being are mixed.” [3]

Research on the Field

Descriptive research on the prevalence and correlates of parental incarceration shows three main things. First, the risk of paternal and maternal incarceration have both increased dramatically since the onset of the prison boom in the early 1970s, with risks of paternal incarceration far higher than risks of maternal incarceration. Second, African American children and children whose parents did not complete high school are especially likely to experience this event. Third, children of incarcerated mothers and fathers were exposed to a host of other risk factors for poor outcomes before experiencing paternal or maternal incarceration and show high levels of a host of behavioral problems (although descriptive work does not provide insight into whether these behavioral problems are due to paternal or maternal incarceration or something else). (…)

Research on the relationship between maternal incarceration and child wellbeing is far more contentious than is research on the consequences of paternal incarceration for family life and children’s outcomes. In general, studies in this area using less extensive controls or considering effects on older children find broad evidence of harms, while studies using more extensive controls or considering effects on younger children find minimal evidence of harm. This is not to say, of course, that children with incarcerated mothers are not struggling, on average, relative to children who do not experience this event. Instead, it suggests that the struggles these children face may be due not to the actual incarceration experience but to the many other disadvantages these children faced [even] prior to having their mother experience incarceration. Two areas in this subfield in which there is little debate involve (1) the consequences of high levels of female imprisonment for foster care caseloads, and (2) how the stigma attached to having a mother imprisoned affects teacher expectations of children. However, all other areas are hotly contested. (…)

As will be the case with most of the research on paternal incarceration and child wellbeing, nearly all of the research on the consequences of paternal incarceration for children’s family contexts finds consistent evidence of negative effects, although very little of the research in this area uses a sufficiently strong research design to establish causality. (…)

Whether considering consequences for the mortality risks of very young children, the housing instability of children about to enter kindergarten, or the behavioral, mental health, and physical health problems of slightly older children, all signs point toward the incarceration of a father doing harm to children. There are, however, important caveats here, as some work in this area demonstrates that these consequences are limited to fathers who had not engaged in domestic violence and were not convicted of a violent crime, with some evidence also suggesting that the consequences are most severe for children living with their fathers prior to his incarceration. (…)

Although the research designs for studies considering the consequences of paternal incarceration for older children (including adolescences, young adults, and even adults in their 40s in some instances) tend to be weaker than those considering the consequences of paternal incarceration on young children, research in this area paints a mostly consistent portrait of negative effects. Because most of the studies that make it possible to follow the children of incarcerated parents into later life are from countries other than the United States, it is less clear how representative the studies briefly reviewed in this section are of the children of the American prison boom. [4]

Resources

Notes

  1. Comfort, M. L. (2003). In the tube at San Quentin: The “secondary prisonization” of women visiting inmates. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32(1), page 271.
  2. Murphey, D., & Cooper, P. M. (2015). Parents behind bars: What happens to their children Washington, DC: Child Trends
  3. National Research Council. (2014). The growth of incarceration in the United States: Exploring causes and consequences. Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. Pages 262-263.
  4. Wildeman, C. (2014). Parental incarceration and child wellbeing: An annotated bibliography

Further Reading

  • Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of color blindness. New York: The New Press.
  • Andersen, L. H. (2016). How children’s educational outcomes and crimininality vary by duration and frequency of paternal incarceration. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665(1), 149-170.
  • Apel, R. (2016). The effects of jail and prison confinement on cohabitation and marriage. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665(1), 103-126.
  • Apel, R., Blokland, A. A., Nieuwbeerta, P., & van Schellen, M. (2010). The impact of imprisonment on marriage and divorce: A risk set matching approach. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 26(2), 269-300.
  • Arditti, J. A. (2012). Child trauma within the context of parental incarceration: A family process perspective. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 4(3), 181-219.
  • Bennett, N. G., Bloom, D. E., & Craig, P. H. (1989). The emergence of black and white marriage patterns. American Journal of Sociology, 95(3), 692-722.
  • Braman, D. (2002). Families and incarceration. In M. Mauer & M. Chesney-Lind (Eds.), Invisible punishment: The collateral consequences of mass imprisonment (pp. 117-135). New York: The New Press.
  • Braman, D. (2004). Doing time on the outside: Incarceration and family life in urban America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Brame, R., Bushway, S., Paternoster, R., & Turner, M. G. (2014). Demographic patterns of cumulative arrest prevalence by ages 18 and 23. Crime and Delinquency, 60, 471-486.
  • Brame, R., Turner, M. G., Paternoster, R., & Bushway, S. D. (2011). Cumulative prevalence of arrest from ages 8 to 23 in a national sample. Pediatrics, 129(1), 21-27.
  • Bryant, P. T., & Morris, E. (1998). What does the public really think? Corrections Today, 59(1), 26-28.
  • Cho, R. M. (2009a). The impact of maternal imprisonment on children’s probability of grade retention: Results from Chicago public schools. Journal of Urban Economics, 65, 11-23.
  • Cho, R. M. (2009b). The impact of maternal incarceration on children’s educational achievement: Results from Chicago public schools. Journal of Human Resources, 44, 772-797.
  • Christian, J. (2005). Riding the bus: Barriers to prison visitation and family management strategies. Journal of Criminal Justice, 21(1), 31-48.
  • Christian, J., Mellow, J., & Thomas, S. (2006). Social and economic implications of family connections to prisoners. Journal of Criminal Justice, 34(4), 443-452.
  • Clear, T. R. (2002). The problem with “addition by subtraction” : The prison-crime relationship in low-income communities. In M. Mauer & M. Chesney-Lind (Eds.), Invisible punishment: The collateral consequences of mass imprisonment (pp. 181-193). New York: The New Press.
  • Clear, T. R. (2007). Imprisoning communities: How mass incarceration makes disadvantaged neighborhoods worse. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Comfort, M. (2008). Doing time together: Love and family in the shadow of the Prison. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Comfort, M. L. (2003). In the tube at San Quentin: The “secondary prisonization” of women visiting inmates. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32(1), 77-107.
  • Comfort, M. (2016). “A Twenty Hour a Day Job” : The repercussive effects of frequent low-level criminal justice involvement on family life. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 665 (May 2016), 63-79.
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