Those They Leave Behind: Paternal Incarceration and Maternal Instrumental Support

By Turney, Kristin; Schnittker, Jason et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Those They Leave Behind: Paternal Incarceration and Maternal Instrumental Support


Turney, Kristin, Schnittker, Jason, Wildeman, Christopher, Journal of Marriage and Family


As the American imprisonment rate has risen, researchers have become increasingly concerned about the implications of mass imprisonment for family life. The authors extend this research by examining how paternal incarceration is linked to perceived instrumental support among the mothers of inmates' children. Results from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 4,132) suggest that recent, but not current, paternal incarceration is independently associated with less maternal perceived instrumental support and that this association persists after adjusting for a rich set of control variables, including prior perceived instrumental support. For families of recently incarcerated men, incarceration may be a double strike, simultaneously increasing the need for instrumental support while decreasing its availability when incarcerated fathers return to the community.

Key Words: exchange relationships, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, incarceration, perceived support, social support.

The American incarceration rate has increased dramatically since 1973, swelling the number of individuals and families affected by the criminal justice system. In 2009, 1 in 134 U.S. residents - a total of 2.3 million adults - were held in prisons and jails (West, 2010), and an additional 5.1 million adults were on probation or parole (Glaze & Bonczar, 2009). The consequences of incarceration for men are pervasive, as currently and formerly incarcerated men have damaged labor market prospects (Pager, 2003; Western, 2006), decreased union stability (Massoglia, Remster, & King, 201 1; Western, 2006), increased physical health problems (Massoglia, 2008), and impeded civic participation (Uggen, Manza, & Thompson, 2006).

Yet incarceration is not only a common event in the life course of disadvantaged men. It is also a common event in the lives of their family members (Comfort, 2007). The majority of inmates have children, and more than 1 .7 million children had a parent in prison in 2007 (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Even larger numbers of children have parents recently released from prison and under correctional supervision. Some groups of children are especially affected, in that men who are young, poorly educated, and members of racial/ethnic minority groups, residing in neighborhoods of concentrated disadvantage, are at especially high risk of incarceration (Sampson & Loeffler, 2010; Wakefield & Uggen, 2010).

Incarceration, then, may undermine the fabric of family life in the same way as other forms of family instability. Divorce and nonmarital childbearing, which have become more common in the past half-century, have adverse consequences for adults (Amato, 2000; Meadows, 2009; Williams, Sassler, Freeh, Addo, & Cooksey, 2011) and children (Giordano, 2010; Kim, 2011; Sigle-Rushton & McLanahan, 2004). In the same vein, a growing literature describes incarceration as a force contributing to intergenerational social stratification (Wakefield & Uggen, 2010; Western, 2006). Children of incarcerated parents have more behavioral problems (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012; Murray & Farrington, 2008; Murray, Farrington, Sekol, & Olsen, 2009; Poehlmann, 2005; Wildeman, 2010) and decreased educational attainment (Foster & Hagan, 2007; though for a critical view, see Giordano, 2010, pp. 147-150). The negative consequences of incarceration for children may result from the loss of family income (Geller, Garfinkel, & Western, 2011; Western, 2006), diminished paternal contact (Swisher & Waller, 2008), or decreased maternal well-being (Schwartz-Soicher, Geller, & Garfinkel, 2011; Wildeman, Schnittker, & Turney, 2012).

Background: Consequences of Paternal Incarceration

Although there is considerable interest in the consequences of incarceration for the individuals who are incarcerated and, to a lesser extent, their children, much less is known about the women who link incarcerated men to their children. …

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