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Study explores how incarceration affects father-child and couple relationships

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC— A new study by RTI International, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, showed that men’s relationships with their spouses, partners, and children tend to deteriorate during an incarceration.

The study followed 1,482 couples over a three-year follow-up period that began during one partner’s incarceration and continued as many were released.

The United States has the most incarcerated people in the world, and more than half of the 2.3 million individuals in U.S. jails and prisons are parents.  Previous studies have shown that parental incarceration contributes to persistent, nation-wide racial disparities in child well-being, including infant mortality, behavioral issues, and mental health problems.

The RTI study found that men’s relationships with their spouses or partners deteriorated during incarceration.  Those who began the study as couples were less likely to live together, be exclusive with one another, or consider themselves to be a couple after the male partner returned from prison. Fathers also reported poorer relationships with their children—they interacted with their children less, provided less support for them financially, and were less likely to live with their children after being released. 

 “Reversing the negative effects of incarceration on a family requires understanding the stresses that the situation places on all involved, and what programs and policies would better support their well-being,” said Tasseli McKay, research analyst at RTI and co-author of the study. “This kind of study, looking at incarcerated and reentering persons and their families, had never been done. Almost all previous research on reentry from prison followed the incarcerated person exclusively, and since it is clear that justice system involvement is a family matter, research should continue to be more inclusive.”

Another finding of the study was that the quality of a couple’s relationship before incarceration has some impact on whether or not a couple can endure. Cohabitation, exclusivity, intimacy, and marital and parenting status are determining factors, as are relationship length and satisfaction. In fathers’ relationships with their children, the age of the child is predictive of how parents fare after release—fathers with younger children interacted with their children more after release, rated their relationships with their children more highly, and showed more warmth with their children than did fathers of older children.  Fathers who maintained contact with their children during incarceration were more likely to live with them after release.

This study has important implications for future policies and programs to strengthen families and facilitate men’s successful reentry from prison.  Developing strategies to support families in maintaining contact and healthy relationships during an incarceration could help to preserve those bonds and make for better couple relationships and more engaged fatherhood after men are released into the community.  Providing transportation assistance, family-friendly visitation areas, and low-cost telephone options could be helpful in addressing barriers that participants suggested make it hard to maintain that contact during incarceration.  Study participants also expressed a need for better preparation about what to expect during a family member’s reentry, and tangible assistance with jobs, housing, and child care during this critical period of transition.