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This post has been updated for Second Chance Month 2023.

The Vital Role of Family for Second Chances

The United States Congress and the White House have declared April as Second Chance Month for people who were once incarcerated and are trying to return to mainstream society. The resolution supports “actions and programs that promote awareness of collateral consequences and provide closure for individuals who have paid their debts” in the justice system.

Families play a key and often overlooked role in second chances. They are the primary source of support for those released from incarceration, and often suffer the most when a reentering person cannot find work or ends up back in jail or prison. Families and reentering individuals can benefit from support for maintaining healthy relationships and meeting practical needs as the formerly incarcerated person makes the difficult transition back to life outside of prison.

In this post, we summarize 10 key highlights from RTI’s decades of research and evaluation on the subject of incarceration and families, especially incarcerated parents.

  1. If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. On behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, a team of RTI experts led the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting, and Partnering. This first-of-its-kind longitudinal study of nearly 2,000 families evaluated family strengthening programs and gathered a wealth of information about the experiences of families during the incarceration and release of each family’s father.
  2. Family strengthening programs show promise. In evaluating the impact of four diverse family strengthening programs, we found that the Indiana Department of Corrections’ couples-based healthy relationship retreats provided to incarcerated men and their committed romantic partners had long-term positive impacts. Couples who participated in the retreats had better-quality relationships, better parenting and coparenting, and even better employment experiences up to three years later than those in the comparison group.
  3. Fathers leave a gap in their children’s lives when they go to prison. Contrary to the “deadbeat dad” stereotype, many incarcerated and reentering fathers were very involved with their families before incarceration, putting significant time and financial resources toward their children’s care.
  4. Families want to reunite. Couples in our study who had been separated for years overwhelmingly hoped to reunite after the incarceration, and almost all fathers hoped to live with their children when they were released.
  5. Fathers need help picking up where they left off. After they return from prison, many fathers are no longer able to parent in the ways they did before incarceration. Parental involvement and nurturing in children’s lives are impacted by a loss of connection.
  6. Many are trapped by debt and live in poverty. Reentering fathers face massive, accumulated child support debts and often have little or no income with which to pay. Low earnings inhibit men’s ability to support themselves and their children through work.
  7. Families are the safety net. Costs of reentry that are not borne by public systems—such as housing, transportation, job-seeking expenses, and criminal justice fines and fees—are often shifted to economically vulnerable spouses, partners, and coparents.
  8. Those who stay connected have more of a “second chance.” Staying in touch during incarceration does help reentering individuals reunify successfully with their partners and children upon reentry, but families face serious barriers to contact and receive little help.
  9. Children need second chances, too. Healthy parent-child reunification after an incarceration may require behavioral health support for both parents and children.
  10. Second chances need to be measured differently. Reentry “success” doesn’t just mean avoiding re-arrest or reincarceration. Other outcomes, such as resuming parenting and partner roles, deserve greater attention.

RTI’s research on families affected by incarceration has provided a new perspective on the reentry process—an intimate view that helps remind policymakers and other stakeholders about what is truly at stake in reentry.

This perspective is fundamental to the mission of Second Chance Month, which celebrates the potential of people with histories of criminal legal system contact. By understanding the interconnections between family life and criminal legal system involvement, we can find new ways to support successful reentry and address the longstanding inequities caused by incarceration in the United States.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Tasseli McKay (Social Science Researcher) and Christine H. Lindquist (Director, Corrections and Reentry Research Program, Justice Practice Area) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.