Introduction to the incarcerate can lead to the isolation


            To better understand the effect
imprisonment has on prisoners’ families, the concept of “collateral
consequences” can be useful. Families of prisoners are unintentionally the
victims of the criminal justice system due to the hardships they experience while
the offender is incarcerated.  Many
families suffer emotionally and financially during the period of imprisonment. In
addition, family life is greatly disrupted as they juggle the strain of maintaining
contact with the prisoner and the change of roles in the family. Braman and
Wood (2003) claim that the negative side effects of incarceration cause family
members experience equal, if not more, pain than the incarcerated member. However,
the pain experienced by the prisoner’s family differs from the prisoner’s. The
family deals with stress relating to the prisoner’s well-being as well as the
well-being of the rest of the family left behind. Furthermore, the consequences
of being related to the incarcerate can lead to the isolation of the family by their
community. While the question of whether prisons are effective is highly
debated, the collateral damage inflicted on prisoner’s families are not as
commonly discussed. The family members are innocent and uninvolved in the crime
committed by the offender, so it seems unfair that they are indirectly punished
by the criminal justice process. On the other hand, it would be difficult to imprison
or otherwise punish the offender without somehow negatively impacting the life
of their family. Moreover, allowing special treatment and considerations for
offenders with families would be unfair for offenders without a family, thus punishing
them for not having familial bonds. The issue of collateral consequences regarding
the family of the incarcerated complicates the imprisonment of criminals. In
this paper, I will address the plethora of problems that family members of the
incarcerated face, including troubles of prison visitations, financial and
emotional strain, and shame and guilt.

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The Effect on Prisoners’ Children

            Following the incarceration of a
parent, children must adapt to the new life of a disrupted family. Hagan and
Dinovitzer (1999, p. 123) state that factors that children are negatively
impacted by parental imprisonment due to “the strains of economic deprivation,
the loss of parental socialization through role modelling, support, and
supervision, and the stigma and shame of societal labeling,” or what they call
the “strain, socialization, and stigmatization perspectives.” The strain
perspective addresses issues like older children dropping out of school to care
for their younger siblings or to start working. The decision to work stems from
the desire to supplement the lack of money as a result of the removal of one
parent’s income. However, some children end up working in the underground
market and other criminal professions (Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999, p. 125). Moreover,
finding work can be difficult, especially if one is underage, and criminal
activities is a loophole to earning money. Another aspect of the strain theory
suggests that even in dysfunctional families, the incarceration of a parent is
damaging to children as pre-existing issues become more jarring (Hagan and
Dinovitzer 1999). In addition, the removal of a parent, especially if it is the
mother, can lead to children being placed in the care of other relatives or, if
there are no other existing family members, foster care. As a result, children
who are removed from their family are subject to inadequate care and the trauma
of separation. Children who are forced into alternative living arrangements sometimes
suffer because of the caretaker’s insufficient funds to support or raise them. In
a majority of the cases, Hungerford (1993) discovered that the replacement
caretakers are “poorly educated and do not exhibit prosocial parenting skills
in watching the children” (p. 130). Furthermore, Carlson and Cervera (1992) also
argue that after the incarceration of a parent, some children experience a
problematic change in behavior in public and in private settings, insomnia, trust
issues, separation anxiety, and a fear of abandonment.

Sampson and Laub’s (1993) research suggests that “the social control of
children by parents is an important source of social capital that persists its
influence throughout the life course” (cited Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999, p.
126). In other words, the lack of parental supervision and support influences
the behavior of their children, resulting in an increased risk of falling to peer
pressure. The disappearance of a role model negatively impacts a child’s understanding
of what is right and what is wrong, making them easy to manipulate into
participating in criminal activities. Furthermore, stigmatization of being a
child of a criminal causes them to adopt angry, touchy, and defiant attitudes (Hagan
and Dinovitzer 1999, p. 127) that lead to aggression, depression, and
withdrawal; all are symptoms that show a high-risk for criminal acts (p. 138). However,
the impact an absent parent has on their child differs depending on if the
mother or father is imprisoned. For instance, if the father is incarcerated, children
are more likely to experience impoverished conditions, homelessness, and infant
mortality (Wakefield and Wildeman 2013). This is due to a substantial
proportion of fathers being the main breadwinner in the family, thus many
financial difficulties arise when they are the incarcerated parent. Hagan and
Dinovitzer (1999, p. 139) make the connection that the imprisonment of the
father has a similar effect financially, emotionally, and psychologically on
children as those whose fathers are deceased or divorced. On the other hand,
research by Koban (1983 cited by Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999, p. 143) suggests
that in comparison to the incarceration of fathers, mothers leave their children
at greater risk. Mothers are more likely to have been caring for and living
with their children prior to imprisonment, therefore, the dependency on the
mother and emotional and psychological damage is more intense. Furthermore, children
of incarcerated mothers have a higher chance of being removed from the family
and placed into the care of another; if a father is incarcerated, the children can
be entrusted to the mother. Nonetheless, the incarceration of either parent negatively
effects the growth and mental well-being of children, often pushing them into financial
hardships and disrupting their daily lives.

The Effect on Prisoners’ Female Partner

            In this section, I will address the
additional hardships female partners of the incarcerated experience. According
to Mumola’s (2000) research, in 90% of the cases where the father is
imprisoned, the mother is the main parent in charge of raising the children.
Therefore, not only do the mothers have to maintain their child-rearing duties,
they feel stress and pressure to fill in the roles of the absent father
(Carlson and Cervera 1992). The male parent usually holds the role as the main
breadwinner so when they are incarcerated, the role is passed to the female.
However, there are difficulties keeping or finding a job due to the stigma of
being the wife of a criminal (Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999 cited Girshik 1996, p.
59). As a result, many newly-turned single parent families become impoverished
and some even lose their homes. Jardine (2017) notes that “the lives of women
who support a family member in custody closely resemble those of women who are
themselves incarcerated, as both often struggle with poverty, trauma and
precarity” (p. 1). Furthermore, wives of the incarcerated often yearn to do
“normal family things” like spend a day with her loved one which would be a way
to help cope with the increased burdens and duties and allow them to destress
and preserve the bond with the prisoner (Jardine 2017, p. 8). “Normal family
things” such as hugs and kisses are common ways family members display
affection. The lack of physical affection between the incarcerated and partner
creates a sense of separation and loneliness. In addition, the absence of other
everyday family activities, like sitting around the table and sharing a meal,
has negative consequences that should not be underestimated. The importance of
eating food with the family stems from being “closely connected to dominant
social narratives of what families ‘do’ and form a central part of family life
in societies across the globe” (Jardine 2017, p. 7). Moreover, Gabb (2011)
explains that food is closely associated with the feeling of love, so the sharing
of a meal can be seen as a method of maintaining relationships. Therefore, when
families are separated by imprisonment, simple acts that connect them as a
family is broken down and creates a strained relationship. Jardine (2017)
concludes that it is not possible to punish only the offender without
unintentionally affecting their family “as it is inevitable that the family
lives, resources and relationships of those closest to him or her will also be
restricted, unbalanced and curtailed” (p. 16).

            Many wives, girlfriends, and mothers
are dedicated to visiting their loved one in prison and although the visits are
stressful and exhausting, they take on the role of supporting the incarcerated
willingly. In Condry’s (2007, p. 55) study, she highlights how supporting the
incarcerated in prison comes with personal costs as it becomes their “primary
occupation”; money is spent buying items for a care package and time is spent
visiting, making phone calls, and writing letters. In addition, these women
also do their best to keep an eye on the condition of her loved one, like
whether or not he is eating properly, getting his medication, or being treated
fairly. The act of supporting the incarcerated provides comfort and a sense of
connectedness for the women. Nonetheless, maintaining contact often means the
female has to “forfeit her own privacy and well-being as she becomes subject to
a process secondary prisonization, or a weakened version of the power and
control exerted by the prison” (Jardine 2017, p. 2 cited Comfort 2008). In the
next section, I will further explore the concept of the effects of secondary
prisonization on female visitors.

The Pain of Prison Visitations

            There are several barriers that make
it challenging for family members to visit the incarcerated: financial
difficulties, emotional stress, strain in relationship with prisoner, and limited
visitation rights (Hairston 2003). As a result, Mumola (2000) found that few male
inmates maintained contact with their children; they received no mails, phone calls,
or visits. The lack of connection between incarcerated fathers and their
children lead to a deteriorated relationship that continues beyond the period
in prison. Furthermore, much of prison visits are carried out by the prisoner’s
female partner. Comfort’s (2003) study focuses on the “secondary prisonization”
experienced by women and found that it can result in “poverty, homelessness,
physical and mental health problems, family disruption, or stigmatization” (p.
79). While visiting the prison, women are subject to strict dress codes and
their dignity is taken away. A woman in Comfort’s (2003) study described the
checks as something akin to “a slave-holding tank” (p. 84). Women are barred
from visiting their loved ones if they do not meet the prison’s dress code
regulations; a woman who could not wear a bra because of medical conditions was
not allowed in (Comfort 2003, p. 93). Furthermore, visitors are often not
informed of the dress code prior to the visit so many are forced to change their
clothes or leave. Family members already face many challenges financially and
emotionally so the strict regulation on dress code adds unnecessary burdens on
the visitor.

Visits to the prison require careful planning, like scheduling the
means of transportation and buying food, clothes, and other necessities the
prisoner’s care package, so much so that “visits to the prison and trying to
maintain a relationship with the incarcerated individual become an integral
part of life and coping mechanisms are often developed” (Christian 2005, p. 33).
The first obstacle to prison visits is the journey there. Families often have
to take multiple trains, buses, subways, and taxis before they can take the
designated prison bus, resulting in expensive transportation fees. The process
is so time consuming that it can take some visitors an entire day to arrive. In
some cases, visitors arrive at the prison only to find out that they would not
be allowed into the facility because it was not a designated day, there was a
new policy, or another reason (Christian 2005, p. 40). The families are
disappointed and distressed due to their inability to fulfill their promise to
the incarcerated and at the large amount of money spent on the trip. Some
regular riders form bonds with others as a means to overcome barriers by
providing emotional support (Christian 2005, p. 39). Their shared experiences bring
the riders together and discussing their troubles act as a coping mechanism.

Barriers like financial troubles, emotional strain, and other responsibilities
in life prevent family members from visiting the inmate. For some families,
however, they tire of the incarcerated cycling in and out of prison and
eventually reach a breaking point where they decide to cut the prisoner out of
their life (Christian 2005, p. 40). Additionally, there are inmates that tell
family members not to visit so that they will not have to suffer the hardships
of prison visitations. Christian (2005, p. 40) also argues that many visitors do
not enjoy visiting but do it anyway either out of a sense of obligation or as a
means to monitor the prison system. By the time families arrive at the prison,
they are far too tired and stressed to enjoy their time with the incarcerated. Nevertheless,
families worry that if they do not visit they will not know about what happens
to the prisoner. The incarcerated could pass away or be abused and the prison
officers might not tell the family. Furthermore, there is a belief that if an
inmate does not get any visitors then it means nobody cares about them. No
matter how difficult it is mentally or physically for the family to come see
the incarcerated, they are willing to do it in order to maintain their
relationship. It is suggested by Hairston (2003) that prison visits maintain
and strengthen familial bonds and thus show that families can influence and play
a crucial role in the reintegration of the incarcerated. Therefore, it is
questioned whether or not the deprivation of visitation rights and challenges
in making the visit is used as a form of punishment for the prisoner, which
inadvertently affects their family.

The Shame and Guilt Felt by Prisoner’s Family

            Family members of the incarcerated
experience collateral consequences beyond just the pain caused by imprisonment as
the negative stigma associated with the offender is applied to the them as
well. The imprisonment of a family member is not something people are proud of and
many relatives take great measures to protect the prisoner’s children and hide
the incarceration from others, including from their closest friends (Hairston
2003, p. 48). This is understandable as the stigma attached to families of the
incarcerated causes them to be treated and viewed the same way prisoners are
(Condry 2007). The title of “criminal” is perceived by society as dangerous
monsters and the varying severity of the crime committed is not acknowledged. The
isolation of prisoners’ families from the community can be explained with
Goffman’s (1963 cited Kotova 2014) concept of “courtesy stigma” which argues
that “prisoners’ families are seen as somehow tainted by their association with
the prisoner (who is seen as evil and monstrous)” (Kotova 2014, p. 5). Furthermore,
families also willingly separate themselves from the community in an attempt to
protect themselves but that also makes it difficult to find the much-needed
support (Braman and Wood 2003). The idea that prisoners are all inherently evil
also makes it easier for other people to ignore the hardships of incarcerated
families and silence them. However, silence, according to Kotova, “generates
further stigma, because silence connotes something negative or shameful:
‘silence breeds shame every bit as much as shame breeds further silence'”
(Kaufman and Raphael 1997, p. 103 cited Kotova 2014, p. 6). Kotova (2014) also
mentions that the stigma of an incarcerated male is more likely to pass onto
the women in the family due to the dependence they have on the male prisoner’s
financial and social status. Although if it is the woman who is incarcerated,
“male relatives may also suffer significantly… but their social status is not
usually dependent on that of their imprisoned relatives'” (p. 7). Furthermore,
in addition to the stress of supporting their imprisoned loved one, women
experience the “web of shame” (Condry 2007) where they also feel “blamed,
shamed and stigmatized by the offence” (Jardine 2017, p. 2) similarly to the
way the incarcerated is.

            Family members of the incarcerated experience
feelings of vicarious guilt and shame that are self-inflicted or inflicted by
society. Lickel, Shmader, Curtis, Scarnier, and Ames (2005, p. 146) argue that
a person who feels guilty is inclined to try to fix the situation while a
person who feels ashamed exhibit behaviors of isolation to distance themselves
from the problem. Likewise, those who are guilty feel as if they had some
control in the situation and those who feel shame are more self-conscious and
fear rejection from others. Shame and guilt felt by those related to the
offender is due to the shared social identity, such as family. As such, family
members of the incarcerated often feel that they had a part in the criminal
act. The stronger the bond they have with their shared identity group and how
strongly they identify with the group determines the amount of shame and guilt
is felt. Lickel et al. (2005) notes that groups that have “shared gender,
ethnicity, religion, and kinship often seem to involve high levels of shared
identity perhaps because these attributes are often seen as essential features
of the individual” (p. 148). In addition, Stipek (1998 cited Lickel et al.
2005, 147) states that some research shows that people in countries with a collectivist
culture, like China and Japan, experience more intense vicarious guilt and
shame than those from an individualist culture. Chinese and Japanese culture place
immense importance in family honor, reputation, and image, therefore, they are more
afraid of actions that would “taint” the family. However, in the case of Japan,
this collectivist mindset can help curb crime rates.

            Self-inflicted feelings of vicarious
guilt and shame are often motivated by the idea that they could have done
something to prevent the incident from happening. For instance, Lickel,
Shmader, and Hamilton (2003, p. 196) brings up the example of the guilt parents
of school shooters experience. These parents believe they could have stopped
their child by picking up hints about their behavior and by storing their guns
more safely, thus the parents feel guilty for the deaths and injuries of the
victims. In addition, school shooters’ parents feel shamed “because they fear
that their own ‘flesh and blood’ is morally flawed” (Lickel et al. 2005, p.
148). On the other hand, feelings of vicarious shame and guilt that are imposed
by members of their community stem from the stigmatization of prisoners and
their families. For instance, the mothers of murderers and rapists are unfairly
victimized by society as the mother and person who bore the “monster” and a
terrible parent for failing to instill moral values (May 2000, p. 1999). On the
other hand, the children of criminals are usually not affected by kin
culpability and are not blamed for the actions of their parents’. Nonetheless,
children of the convicted still possess feelings of shame for sharing blood
relations. The media also holds some power to inflict damage on the families of
prisoners by releasing inaccurate or defamatory reports. These reports can
spark rage in the community and the families become target to harassment, so
much so they fear leaving the house. The shaming of prisoners’ families negatively
affects their lives and often push them further into withdrawal from society.


            As discussed in this paper, relatives
of the incarcerated experience a variety of negative stigmatization and hardships,
similarly to the convicts themselves. The concept of collateral consequences
accurately describes the unintentional punishment of family members through the
criminal justice system. To punish only the one who committed the criminal act
is just not possible as the offender and their relationship with their family is
closely interconnected. However, studies reveal that the female family members
suffer more than their male counterpart in terms of prison visitations and stigmatization.
This is in part due to the patriarchal nature of society as females are
generally more likely to be victimized. Yet, there is also lacking research on the
collateral consequences experienced by nonconventional families; the effects on
children with same-sex parents and single fathers who are incarcerated and the
hardships of fathers when mothers are incarcerated are all family situations
that are barely addressed. The voices of incarcerated families are often muted,
or their words turned against them. In addition, many family members struggle
to adjust their view of the criminal act of a loved one. The idea of hating the
sin but loving the sinner is a popular concept as families attempt to explain why
and how they continue to stand by the offender. They often try to minimize the
crime of the incarcerated by comparing it to similar or more extreme cases and
try to convey how good of a person the offender is normally and portray them as
good guys. The suffering of criminals’ families is inevitable so long as
imprisonment remains the punishment for breaking the law, but understanding the
collateral damage that affects those aside from the offender allows policies
that protect secondary victims to be created.