Book Review: Parental Incarceration and the Family: Psychological and Social Effects of Imprisonment on Children, Parents, and Caregivers

Joyce A. Arditti
New York University Press, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8147-0512-4

Reviewed by: Dale Warburton, Senior Policy Adviser, Department of Corrections

Reviewer biography: Dale Warburton joined the Corrections Policy Team as a Senior Policy Adviser in November 2017. He has previously held policy roles at the Ministry of Transport and Ministry for the Environment.

Set in a US context, Parental Incarceration and the Family summarises a wealth of literature to argue that imprisoning parents has wide and significant implications.

The book is presented uniquely by supplementing overviews of research with, at times, emotional anecdotes from the author’s own qualitative research to examine the effects of parental incarceration on family relationships, wellbeing and outcomes.

As the title suggests, the book not only examines the impacts on prisoners who are parents, but also how the imprisoning of a parent affects their children, their parents and other family members.

Separate chapters are devoted to highlighting the breadth of impacts on mothers and fathers who are imprisoned. This provides an opportunity to reflect on how impacts can differ between a mother’s imprisonment and a father’s imprisonment, and highlights gaps in research. While numerous impacts are summarised across the two chapters, the most prominent are; difficulties in maintaining their parent–child relationship while in prison, particularly if there are geographical or visitation barriers, rebuilding familiar relationships after release, and navigating if the non-imprisoned partner has found a new partner.

The book continues with a chapter dedicated to the impacts of imprisonment on families and children and offers a reminder that a prison sentence is not only punishment for the offender, but can have significant, and extensive, impacts on their families.

Literature covered in the book argues that the effect of a parent’s imprisonment can manifest itself in many different ways. In addition to traumatic separation there are economic impacts from lost income, psychological impacts, and behaviour changes by children. When extended family are required to take over as primary caregivers, the impact ripples further than just the immediate family. Impacts on children can extend further, with the author highlighting research that suggests having an imprisoned parent can lead to a higher chance of a child being imprisoned themselves. In summary, the life path of the remaining family, and in some instances the extended family, is severely altered.

In the final chapter, the author turns attention towards policy implications, with a particular desire for policies to take into account the broader implications of parental imprisonment. While the author does not explicitly set out a range of policies to reduce the impact, a framework for considering the effectiveness of potential policy options is developed.  The inference from this framework is that imprisonment is a reflection of the socio-economic conditions within society, and while policies or procedures can be implemented to try to maintain familial ties during imprisonment, social policy reform that addresses social and racial inequalities would have a greater impact by reducing the frequency of imprisonment.

Although no silver bullet is offered, the author argues that policies need to better account for the effects of parental imprisonment, and urges readers to use the framework provided to undertake further research.

In New Zealand, the Department of Corrections has taken steps to reduce the impact of parental imprisonment. Mothers with Babies Facilities allow approved mothers to live with, and care for, their infant child on prison land. Mothers and Bonding Facilities provide opportunities for imprisoned mothers to feed and bond with their baby on a daily basis in a safe and suitable environment. Whānau days in prisons provide opportunities to maintain or establish family relationships in a culturally appropriate manner. Audio-visual technology allows virtual visits as an option, which is especially useful when distance to, or cost of visiting, the prison is a barrier for visitors.

With regard to further research, a natural extension to the body of work could be to quantify the expected financial cost of the broader impacts to society of imprisoning a family member. Research that quantifies the expected societal cost of a prison sentence could provide a useful contribution if there was an opportunity to discuss changes to the sentencing regime, particularly in light of a shift toward more evidence-based investment practices to social service provision.