Academic journal article Fathering

Prison, Fathers, and Identity: A Theory of How Incarceration Affects Men's Paternal Identity

Academic journal article Fathering

Prison, Fathers, and Identity: A Theory of How Incarceration Affects Men's Paternal Identity

Article excerpt

With incarceration and recidivism rates escalating and the failure of many former prisoners to reconnect with family post release, the cost to society and to children of incarcerated parents is quickly rising. While intervention on the family level is thought to have great promise in reducing recidivism, in order to effectively guide research and intervention, current theory must be evaluated for its sensitivity to the context of incarceration and additional theoretical work is needed to conceptualize how incarceration affects paternal identity. This paper proposes using identity theory to conceptualize how incarceration influences how fathers think of themselves. Using Burke's 1991 Identity Theory conceptualization, this paper explores how the unique context of prison interrupts the paternal identity confirmation process, which subsequently affects familial relationships and reconnection.

Keywords: fatherhood, incarceration, prison, father involvement, identity


Historically incarceration has been an uncommon experience in the United States. However, in more recent years the number of people experiencing incarceration is quickly rising to the point of becoming a normal event among some populations (Western, Pattillo, & Weiman, 2004). The effects of incarceration are felt most strongly within the family of the incarcerated individual--especially when a parent is incarcerated. An estimated 1.5 million children have at least one parent in prison (Martin, 2001), and in 94% of these cases that parent is the father (Hairston, 1995; Martin, 2001).

The vast majority of these incarcerated fathers (approximately 93%) will eventually be released. Each year approximately 600,000 men are released from prison, and many will attempt to reconnect with spouses, former spouses, partners, and children (Petersilia, 2003). However, after the father has been released, efforts to maintain or reestablish connections with family and remain active in family life are often unsuccessful. In addition, most released fathers can expect to face the problems of reconnection repeatedly since 67.5% of former inmates are rearrested within three years (Langan & Levin, 2002).

Much of this failure to reconnect with family has been attributed to the incarcerated fathers' own attitudes and behaviors--i.e., those who commit crimes are more likely to have antisocial and egocentric behaviors and attitudes (Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2004). However, some attention has been given to the unique context of incarceration as being problematic for maintaining familial ties post release. Erving Goffman observes in Asylums (1961) that "total institutions [e.g., mental hospitals, prisons, etc.] are ... incompatible with [a] crucial element of our society, the family" (p. 11). Indeed, in recent research incarceration's "incompatibilities" with family have been shown to have a negative impact on family relations. Nurse (2004) found that the unique context of incarceration often becomes the means of severing familial ties. Western, Lopoo, and McLanahan's (2004) study also supports this notion. After controlling for race, employment, education, drug/alcohol abuse, and violence, they found that incarceration had a negative effect on family relationships.

While most of the negative effects of incarceration on the family are relatively visible, there has been little research or theory generated that describes how the incompatibilities between prison and family impact familial relationships (Hairston, 1995). The need to address this shortcoming in the literature is clear since the prison system in the United States has seen unprecedented growth in the past few decades. From 1972 to 2001, the prison population grew from 196,000 to 1.3 million (Western, Pattillo, & Weiman, 2004), with increasing proportions of federal and state budgets going to prisons. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate that U. …

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