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date: 22 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

The rapid rise in the incarceration rate, most notably in the United States over the last four decades, has drawn greater attention to the disabilities imposed by incarceration experiences and the spillover of these complications to the families of inmates. Prisons have always disproportionately drawn upon the disadvantaged, but research today details how imprisonment creates new harms for inmates as well as for those who are connected to them but were never incarcerated. In this contribution, the effects of incarceration on the family are briefly described across several domains. First, the social patterning of incarceration effects are described, for inmates and for their families, showing that imprisonment effects are both widespread and overwhelmingly repressive for some groups. Next, the effects of incarceration on the families of inmates are described, focusing on the partners and children of inmates, and differentiating between maternal and paternal incarceration. Incarceration is broadly harmful for families, but there is a significant gender gap in knowledge—research on paternal incarceration and the romantic partners of male inmates is much more common, rigorous, and uniform in findings. Where findings are mixed, scholarship is reviewed on how examining incarceration and family life has expanded across varying fields that often differ in their research approach, emphasis, and methodology. Finally, the discussion ends with the most pressing challenges for researchers going forward, suggesting that studies interrogating heterogeneity and leveraging new data sources offer the most fruitful path. This review is focused largely on the United States. First, and most practically, much of our knowledge about the effects of incarceration on the family is based on U.S.-based samples. Second, the effects of incarceration on the family have worsened significantly as a result of the prison boom in the United States. It remains to be seen how such effects translate to different contexts; some research suggests similar process at much lower incarceration rates, while others show less harm in other contexts.

Keywords: mass incarceration, family, racial disparities, gender, policy

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