Family Relationships and the Incarcerated Individual

Timothy Daty, University of New Haven

Following rising levels of incarceration in the United States, new methods to reduce recidivism within the justice system need to be developed by researchers and practitioners. When examining recidivism, the study of family relationships is often a key component in predicting repeat criminal behavior among formerly incarcerated individuals. Research suggests that strong family ties produce lasting impacts among this population and often deter future incidents of crime (Bales and Mears, 2008). 

The study of family relationships on imprisoned men and women is centralized on the premise that strong family support will be beneficial in societal reintegration, while lack of family support puts these individuals at greater risk for criminal relapse. Families provide a support that formerly incarcerated individuals are unlikely to find through other means. In addition to financial support, strong family ties can encourage men as they reenter the workforce and can have a direct impact on their future behavior.  As such, recognizing the importance of family among incarcerated people is important to the advancement of criminal justice policy and practice.  

Empirical Research

While it is clear that family plays a role in the rehabilitation process of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, Mowen & Visher (2016) advance how these relationships influence the study of criminal justice. In their research, Mowen & Visher (2016) analyze the family relationships of 676 previously incarcerated men and women in the state of Texas. Through this study, they advance three hypotheses about familial influence and how the nature of these relationships can produce either positive or negative effects in their reintegration into society. 

Their first hypothesis involves positive reinforcement from family members. Mowen & Visher (2016) assert that individuals who maintain contact with their family during incarceration will report a stronger relationship with them upon release. When a family member is jailed for a crime, it often weakens the family dynamic. While incarceration can produce financial challenges for a household, the emotional suffering often reverberates among the entire family unit (Uggen et al, 2004; Bramen, 2004). In many instances, this manifests itself into emotional or mental health challenges for children or spouses of incarcerated individuals (Wildeman et al, 2012; Bramen, 2004). The frequency of visitation among family members can often mitigate these negative outcomes and produce a more positive influence on those incarcerated and their family members. According to their research, Mowen & Visher (2016) determine that the frequency of family visits during incarceration is an excellent indicator for future success. Families that maintain regular contact during incarceration report stronger family dynamics and an easier transition upon their family members’ release. 

Alternatively, their second hypothesis involves negative experiences with family during incarceration and upon departure. Mowen & Visher (2016) argue that individuals who encounter barriers during incarceration will face a negative change within their family relationships when they depart. Reintegrating into society following an incarceration can be a challenging transition both financially and emotionally (Western and Pettit, 2005). In many instances, a persons’ relationship with their family often acts as the backbone during this transition. Thus, it is important to encourage active communication with family during internment. In the absence of family, formerly incarcerated individuals may struggle with this transition and repeat their criminal behavior. Mowen & Visher (2016) argue that barriers such as high financial costs and strict visitation rules are two dominant factors that need to be addressed in visitor policies. These financial barriers often make visitation and active communication less feasible for lower income families (Mowen & Visher, 2016). Research suggests that placing strict barriers on communication can weaken the family dynamic and make it more difficult for incarcerated men and women to connect with their family members upon their release. To alleviate this issue, policies should be modified in order to be more inclusive towards low-income families. 

Lastly, Mowen & Visher (2016) assert that the use of anger management, parenting, and life skills classes can produce more positive family relationships after an individuals’ release from prison. In theory, these classes are meant to address emotional or behavioral issues these prisoners have displayed in the past and help them develop strategies to combat these issues. Based on their research findings, Mowen & Visher (2016) determined that while participation in anger management and parenting classes may be marginally beneficial in family dynamics, life skills classes offered no significant evidence that they strengthen these relationships. While parenting and anger management classes help these inmates develop better interactions with family members, life skills does not offer the same rewards (Mowen & Visher, 2016). In contrast to other programs, life skills services are often focused on topics such as pre-employment preparation and drug & alcohol abuse treatment. As such, these topics may not appeal to someone seeking tools to strengthen their family relationships. (Mowen & Visher, 2016). While this hypothesis is not completely supported, it does show the value of family oriented programs in the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals. 


Policy Analysis

From a policy standpoint, there is a clear link between family relationships and a person’s reintegration into the world following incarceration. Moreover, survival and flourishment post-incarceration depends greatly on strong support from their family members and friends (Visher, Kachnowski, LaVigne, and Travis, 2004). As such, policies need to be changed to fundamentally recognize the importance of strong family relationships and relieve barriers that may impede this effort. In order to respond to this challenge, social connectedness and affordability are the two dominant issues that need to be incorporated into policy.  

When studying trends in recidivism, it is clear that social connectedness is the root source of reintegration into society (Wakefield, 2016).  This social connectedness stems from the relationships an incarcerated individual is able to maintain during and after their sentence. In order to properly facilitate these relationships among family and friends, policymakers need to adapt practices to aid in this effort. As Mowen & Visher (2016) determined in their research, external barriers imposed by policies can adversely impact family. Limiting communication with one’s family will only create more dissonance within their personal life and create more obstacles upon re-entry into the world (Wakefield, 2016). Facilities should actively support regular communication between an incarcerated person and their family (Wakefield, 2016). This healthy interaction can lead to long-term benefits and decrease the rate of recidivism. 

While it is important to support socialization among inmates, policies need to address financial barriers that may exist (McKay et al, 2016). Although a person may not be restricted from seeing their family on a regular basis, the financial burden imposed by visitation often prevents active communication. Many incarcerated individuals often lose contact with their families simply because of the financial burden. Families with fixed incomes may encounter economic hardship when the cost of visitation or phone calls exceeds their financial means (McKay et al, 2016). To tackle this issue, cost effective strategies need to be developed in order to provide regular communication for all families regardless of income. This can be accomplished by considering family proximity in a persons’ facility placement, providing subsidized transportation options for family members, and revising lower cost communication efforts such as letter writing and emailing (McKay et al, 2016). In addition to these actions, formerly incarcerated individuals should be provided with greater financial assistance following their release. Re-entering the world after incarceration can be a financial challenge initially. Easing this transition with more monetary support can help promote positive behavior and reintegration. 

The family dynamic with incarcerated individuals is a complex process influenced by the criminal justice system. With mass incarceration becoming a growing trend within the United States, an emphasis on family relationships can improve the success of an individual following their release. In turn, successful reintegration into the world can have a tremendous impact on recidivism rates. Policymakers and practitioners must actively recognize the role families play in the lives of incarcerated individuals and provide ongoing support to maintain these dynamics, while also alleviating challenges that may impedes these relationships.  



Bales, William D. and Daniel P. Mears. (2008). Inmate social ties and the transition to society: Does visitation reduce recidivism? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 45: 287–321.

Braman, Donald. (2004). Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in Urban America. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

McKay, T., Comfort, M., Lindquist, C., & Bir, A. (2016). If Family Matters. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(2), 529-542.

Mowen, T. J., & Visher, C. A. (2016). Changing the Ties that Bind. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(2), 503-528.

Uggen, Christopher, Jeff Manza, and Angela Behrens. (2004). Less than the average citizen: Stigma, role transition, and the civic reintegration of convicted felons. In (Shadd Maruan, Russ Immarigeon, and Neal Shover, eds.), After Crime and Punishment: Path-ways to Offender Reintegration. Portland, OR: Willan.

Visher, C. A., Kachnowski, V., La Vigne, N. G., & Travis, J. (2004). Baltimore prisoners' experiences returning home. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

Wakefield, S. (2016). Changing the Ties that Bind. Criminology & Public Policy, 15(2), 543-549.

Western, Bruce and Becky Pettit. (2005). Black-white wage inequality, employment rates, and incarceration. American Journal of Sociology, 111: 553–578.

Wildeman, Christopher, Jason Schnittker, and Kristin Turney. (2012). Despair by association? The mental health of mothers with children by recently incarcerated fathers. American Sociological Review, 77: 216–243.


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