Exploring the factors influencing family members connections to incarcerated individuals
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Exploring the Factors Influencing Family Members’ Connections to Incarcerated Individuals. Johnna Christian, Ph.D. Rutgers School of Criminal Justice. Nationwide 2,131,180 people incarcerated in prisons and jails in 2004 New Jersey adult prison population 26,239 in 2004

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Exploring the Factors Influencing Family Members’ Connections to Incarcerated Individuals

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Exploring the Factors Influencing Family Members’ Connections to Incarcerated Individuals

Johnna Christian, Ph.D.

Rutgers School of Criminal Justice

Nationwide 2,131,180 people incarcerated in prisons and jails in 2004

New Jersey adult prison population 26,239 in 2004

In New Jersey 63% of adult, male inmates are African American and 17% Hispanic

Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of prison inmates found 55% of State and 63% of Federal inmates have children under age 18

Nationwide, 7% of black children have an incarcerated parent

Prison Population

Systems Approach to Studying Incarceration

  • Expands focus to family and other individuals in the prisoner’s network as well as the larger community

  • Explores the unintended consequences, hidden costs, or collateral damages of incarceration

  • Incarceration geographically concentrated in a small number of communities

Policy Considerations

  • Prisoner Reentry

    • 600,000 individuals per year returning to communities

    • Families viewed as a primary means of successful reentry

    • We know little about the nature of families’ attachments to prisoners during incarceration or in the pre-incarceration phase. This may have implications for the reentry period.

    • We know little about how family connections to prisoners impacts their ability to connect to social capital in their neighborhoods.

What do we know about prisoner connections to family?

  • Bureau of Justice Statistics Report

    • 57% of fathers never had a personal visit with their children since admission to prison

    • 62% have had contact of some sort (42% phone, 50% mail, 21% visits)

  • Surveys of prisoners in specific facilities

  • Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (Western, Lopoo, and McLanahan, 2004)

Approaches to Studying Connections

  • Typically use cross sectional data to determine the connection/nature of the relationship at one point in time

  • Relationships are complex, fluid, and dynamic

  • Life history approach needed

Data Sources

  • Observation on five bus rides taking families from Columbus Circle to upstate New York prisons

  • Attendance at family support group meetings for Prison Families of New York

  • Open ended, in-depth interviews with 18 family members of prisoners

Family Interview Sample Characteristics

  • 17 women, 1 man

  • 14 African American, 4 Hispanic

  • 7 wives, 4 mothers, 5 girlfriends, 1 sister, 1 brother

  • Visiting frequency ranged from weekly to every six months

  • 7 families have multiple incarcerated individuals in their lives

Maintaining Connections With Prisoners

  • Resources

  • Tradeoffs with other areas of life

  • Setting boundaries with the prisoner


  • Time

    • For families traveling from New York to upstate prisons, the process takes 24 hours

    • Routines of preparation before the ride

    • Navigating prison bureaucracy

  • Money

    • Average $100 for one family member to visit (bus ticket, food while traveling and in the facility, packages)

    • Providing goods for the inmate

  • Energy

    • Exhaustion from the ride affects the quality of the visit


  • Resources are diverted from other needs and areas of life

    • Time spent with children/supervising children

    • Generation of social network/connections to neighborhood institutions

    • Free time/relaxation

    • Family’s material needs

Setting Boundaries

  • Families learn to protect their resources/social capital from the prisoner

  • Restrict calling frequency, block calls, limit visits, take a break from visiting

  • Failure to do this could lead to short or long term severed ties

Potential Benefits of Connection

  • Social bonding for family and children

  • Fewer disciplinary infractions for inmates

  • Decreased likelihood of recidivism

  • Easier transition into the family upon release

Potential Costs to Families

  • Demands of visiting at prison

  • Monitoring the prison system

  • Helping children understand incarceration

  • Multiple incarcerated family members

  • Isolation from social networks

  • Maintaining family emotionally

  • Maintaining family financially

Elements of Life Course Approach

  • Relationship prior to incarceration

  • Prisoner’s efforts at rehabilitation and repairing harm to family

  • Incarceration’s impact on family’s economic resources

  • Incarceration’s impact on social resources

  • Family’s social support network

Policy Considerations

  • Identify critical points in the life course of the family relationship

  • Provide extra resources or intervention at these points

  • Increase attention to options for maintaining contact. (internet, video conferencing, transportation, reasonably priced phone calls)

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