Unintended Effects of Imprisonment Research Paper

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A growing international literature has been attentive to the collateral consequences of net-widening imprisonment policies, observing that the social costs of steadily rising prison admissions in an era of rapidly declining crime rates might very well outweigh the crime-control benefits. The potential irony of mass imprisonment is that, to the extent it has unintended adverse effects on life outcomes that are correlated with criminal offending, large-scale growth in the incarceration rate may actually exacerbate the crime problem over the long run by stigmatizing an ever larger class of individuals.

One unintended collateral consequence faced by ex-inmates might be felt acutely in the institution of marriage. Specifically, a prison record might erode one’s prospects for family formation by delaying or permanently disrupting the transition to marriage. Imprisonment might also disrupt intact marriages by increasing the risk of divorce. In light of compelling research demonstrating an inverse relationship between marriage and criminal behavior, such difficulties could inadvertently sustain an individual’s criminal career. Marriage has a prominent place in criminological theory and research as one institution that has the potential to genuinely foster desistance from a criminal career. Mass imprisonment policies in the United States and elsewhere, therefore, pose a potential threat of increased crime if they impede the ability of ex-prisoners to reintegrate into society by stigmatizing them and limiting their chances in the marriage market.

A second unintended collateral consequence of imprisonment that is central in criminological literature pertains the effects of incarceration on physical and mental health. Criminological literature suggests that former inmates are relatively more vulnerable for mental disorders (e.g., depression and suicide) and chronic and infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, and hepatitis. Moreover, there can be expected to be an ultimate collateral health outcome of incarceration, that is, premature death. Scholars and policymakers are relatively uninformed about the causal effects of incarceration on premature death after release from prison. However, several studies revealed relatively high mortality within prisons and during life after prison.

A third unintended collateral consequence of imprisonment pertains the effects of parental imprisonment on their children’s behavior and well-being. There is increasing concern that imprisonment may have far-reaching undesirable consequences for families of prisoners and the wider community. However, these implications are understudied.

This research paper provides an overview of the theoretical background and the empirical earlier studies on three unintended collateral consequences of imprisonment: (a) marriage and divorce, (b) mortality, and (c) criminal behavior of children of (ex-)prisoners.

Unintended Effects Of Imprisonment I: Marriage And Divorce

Theoretical Background

A number of plausible theoretical explanations can be marshaled to interpret the inverse correlation between incarceration and marriage among unmarried offenders or the positive correlation between incarceration and divorce among married offenders (see for a review Apel et al. 2010). Four possibilities are discussed below, although it is cautioned that the review is not intended to be exhaustive.

First, one mechanism by which incarceration would conceivably erode marriage prospects is through the stigma of imprisonment and the “signal” that such a label transmits to potential spouses. From the perspective of signaling theory and its sociological counterpart – labeling theory – a prison record conveys (however, imperfectly) information about a person that entails more than just his or her future risk of criminal behavior. For example, it might communicate something about one’s prospects for success in the labor market, about one’s ability to provide for a family, about the company that one chooses to keep, about a potential spouse’s risk of becoming a victim of domestic violence, and so on. In other words, a label of “ex-inmate” provides important information that is used by prospective spouses to assess the labeled individual’s reputation, integrity, and future prospects – criminal and non-criminal alike. If potential spouses are responsive to cues about one’s “marriage potential,” it is conceivable that a prison record conveys, quite simply, that one is not marriage material. Incarceration would thus lead to exclusion from the pool of eligible marriage partners because one is viewed as a less viable and attractive partner.

Second, stigmatization might operate in a second, related way by constraining the social networks of ex-inmates and thereby limiting the opportunity to meet potential dating or marriage partners. While crime-prone individuals might run in social circles and frequent geographic locations dominated by like-minded others (through a process of self-selection or social homophily), incarceration and the formal labeling process might exacerbate this tendency through a process of subculture formation among similarly stigmatized individuals. To the extent that policies of mass imprisonment create a society of outcasts through processes of social exclusion, incarceration might result in growing isolation from conventional peer contexts and growing integration into criminal peer networks. This “criminal embeddedness,” or social embeddedness in crime, would provide fewer opportunities than before to meet marriageable partners.

Third, for married offenders, incarceration imposes a period of time-out from the marriage. Because incarceration often removes offenders from their communities of residence, married inmates are physically isolated from their spouses and families, which can lead to disruption in the quality of existing marital ties (Lopoo and Western 2005). The stress of separation could lead to withdrawal and dissolution as alternative sources of emotional support are sought by the “surviving” spouse. Additionally, the loss of economic support by the imprisoned individual might motivate a spouse to separate or divorce in the interest of finding a new partner who can help stabilize the financial situation in the household, particularly if children are present (see Phillips et al. 2006).

Fourth, an entirely different view on the incarceration–marriage relationship flows from the possibility that individuals sort themselves into certain institutional settings on the basis of a differential tendency to consider the long-term consequences of their actions, what Gottfredson and Hirschi refer to as self-control. Because individuals with low self-control seek immediate gratification of their desires with minimal effort or long-term planning, they are less likely to be married or, if married, will tend to have difficulty maintaining a stable union: “People who lack self-control tend to dislike settings that require discipline, supervision, or other constraints on their behavior” (Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990, p. 157). Additionally, individuals with low self-control are theorized to be self-centered, insensitive, and nonverbal, qualities that would also likely interfere with union formation and stability. Simply put, non-marriage, an unstable marriage, and crime are all manifestations of the versatility of individuals with low self-control.

Earlier Research

Four datasets provide the only quantitative evidence pertaining to the effect of imprisonment on the likelihood of marriage. For example, data from the Glueck delinquents support the notion that juvenile incarceration disrupts marital unions in adulthood. Sampson and Laub (1993) found that men sentenced to a reformatory as juveniles were more likely to be divorced in young adulthood (ages 17–25) and middle adulthood (ages 25–32). In their model of the propensity to marry (in order to estimate the effect of marriage on crime), Sampson et al. (2006) found that the length of juvenile incarceration was inversely correlated with the probability of marriage throughout adulthood and into the seventh decade of life. Thus, early imprisonment appears to erode a man’s long-term marriage prospects. Evidence from the Glueck men also suggests that incarceration impedes marriage formation in adulthood, both contemporaneously and in the short term. For example, Sampson et al. (2006) found that the length of incarceration in the previous year (as well as cumulative incarceration length) was inversely correlated with the probability of being married in the current year.

A pair of studies utilized the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study (FFCWS) to estimate the effect of incarceration on family formation among a high-risk sample of parents of newborn children. Western and McLanahan (2000) found that the cumulative incarceration status of the father (at the first follow-up) was strongly related to whether or not the family was intact, that is, whether the father resided with the child’s mother in either a cohabiting or marital situation. Specifically, an incarceration history (as reported by the father) reduced the odds of living together by 49 % (odds ratio = 0.51). Using the same dataset, Western et al. (2004) reported that the father’s incarceration history (as reported by either the father or mother) was inversely associated with the likelihood of cohabitation and marriage relative to nonresidence (see also Western 2006).

Several recent studies using the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) have investigated the relationship between incarceration and marriage. Western (2006) observed that 40 % of males with a prison record remained unmarried until age 40 compared to just over 10 % of never-incarcerated males. Lopoo and Western (2005) reported that male offenders were significantly and substantially less likely to get married during periods in which they were interviewed in an institution. In their discrete-time event history model of first marriage using the 1979–2000 interviews, they estimated that the odds of the transition to marriage were 78 % lower (odds ratio ¼ 0.22) for incarcerated individuals compared to their non-incarcerated counterparts. Similar results were reported from the 1983 to 2000 interviews by Huebner (2005); for race-specific analyses, see Huebner 2007) in a fixed-effects model of marriage, in which she estimated that the odds of being married were 39 % lower for currently incarcerated individuals (odds ratio ¼ 0.61). One notable exception was the study by Raphael (2007) using the 1979–1996 interviews, who found that current incarceration had no impact on the probability of never being married once individual effects were controlled.

With respect to the long-term (versus contemporaneous) relationship between incarceration and marriage in the NLSY79, Huebner (2005, 2007) reported that a history of incarceration as an adult – from the 1983 survey onward, when all respondents were at least 18 years of age – was inversely associated with the probability of marriage but that youthful incarceration (prior to the 1983 interview) was not correlated with marriage. Raphael (2007) noted that having ever been incarcerated prior to the current interview was associated with about a 14-point increase in the probability of having never been married. Lopoo and Western (2005), on the other hand, observed no such effect of having ever been incarcerated on transitions to marriage and divorce. The preponderance of evidence from the NLSY79 suggests, therefore, that incarceration is inversely correlated with marriage, although when measured contemporaneously, this is conceivably an incapacitation effect of prison on marriage likelihood. The findings about the long-term or accumulative effect of incarceration on marital transitions are more equivocal.

Research on the likelihood of divorce is rarer still, but the results are quite consistent. Lopoo and Western (2005) and Western (2006) found that a transition to divorce was significantly more likely to occur contemporaneous with periods of incarceration in the NLSY79. In particular, there was an astonishing twofold increase in the odds of divorce among individuals who were incarcerated relative to their non-incarcerated peers (odds ratio = 2.99). In the FFCWS, Western (2006) similarly found that incarceration significantly increased the risk of separation for men in marital or cohabitational unions, and in fact it was among the strongest predictors in his model (odds ratio ¼ 2.23). Thus, incarceration appears to have a major disruptive effect on preexisting unions.

Finally, Apel et al. (2010) use a long-term study of a conviction cohort in the Netherlands to ascertain the effect that first-time imprisonment has on the likelihood of marriage and divorce. The analysis uses data from the Criminal Career and Life-Course Study (CCLS), a large-scale longitudinal study. The results suggest that the effect of imprisonment on the likelihood of marriage (among unmarried offenders) is largely a selection artifact, although there is very weak evidence for a short-lived impact that does not persist past the first year post-release. This is interpreted as a residual incapacitation effect. On the other hand, the results strongly suggest that the experience of incarceration leads to a substantially higher divorce risk among offenders who are married when they enter prison.

Unintended Effects Of Imprisonment II: Mortality

Theoretical Background

Although some criminological theories have suggested that offenders are more likely than non-offenders to suffer early morbidity and mortality, knowledge on the exact nature of the relationship between incarceration and mortality remains scarce. A number of criminological and health theories were reviewed to learn more about the possible effects of imprisonment on mortality. A literature review shows that, based on different theories, at least four conflicting hypotheses can be formulated about the expected effects of imprisonment on mortality (see Dirkzwager et al. 2012).

First, it is possible that imprisonment has no effect on mortality at all. In that case, differences in mortality rates between ex-prisoners and others result from the fact that other common factors influence both imprisonment and mortality. For instance, individual factors such as low intelligence and high impulsivity can cause criminal behavior, as well as poor health and mortality. In their general theory of crime, Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990) emphasize the importance of the causal agent of low self-control in explaining crime. Compared with their high self-control counterparts, individuals with low self-control are more likely to engage in all sorts of criminal, reckless, and risk-taking behavior throughout their life course. Empirical studies have provided evidence for this theory and showed that personality factors such as high impulsivity, low self-control, and a high need for sensation seeking were related to criminal behavior as well as to an irregular and unhealthy lifestyle with excessive drinking, drug use, risky sexual behavior, and risk-taking in traffic.

Another factor that may influence both criminal behavior (including imprisonment) and mortality is socioeconomic status. It is well established that individuals of low socioeconomic status are overrepresented in prison populations. Throughout history, socioeconomic status (even without delinquency) has been related to health, with persons higher in the social hierarchy having a better health than those lower in the hierarchy. Additionally, research consistently demonstrated a relationship between low socioeconomic status and mortality risk from all causes, as well as specific causes of death.

Second, it can be hypothesized that imprisonment has a direct positive effect on health and consequently decreases the risk of premature mortality. It is, for instance, possible that imprisonment decreases mortality risk by improving prisoners’ health. Life in prison can have some healthy elements. For instance, in some countries, prisoners receive three meals a day, have a right to exercise, have free access to medical and mental health care that must meet the same quality requirements as health care outside prison, and have fewer possibilities to use drug and alcohol while imprisoned. Such health-improving elements of imprisonment may be particularly beneficial for individuals who were already living in problematic circumstances before imprisonment, including poverty, addictions, and homelessness.

Imprisonment can also be hypothesized to change prisoners’ skills, knowledge, and values. Some theories such as learning theories, and economic and social control theories, argue that investment in human capital (i.e., an individual’s skill level, knowledge, and experiences) will increase a person’s (market) value, will increasingly embed a person into conventional society, and will increase the costs associated with further criminal behavior. This idea is consistent with the rehabilitation goal of imprisonment. By offering training (such as education, job training, and social skill training), prisoners are expected to acquire new skills that may increase the possibilities of a conventional life and decrease the chance of future criminal behavior. Thus, when the rehabilitation of prisoners is successful, former prisoners are equipped with more constructive skills that may enhance a healthier lifestyle with a decreased risk of mortality.

Third, it is possible that imprisonment has a direct negative effect on health and consequently increases mortality risk. A prison experience can be seen as a major stressful event in prisoners’ lives, which may negatively affect their mental and physical health, and thereby increase their risk of mortality. Stress theories argue that major life events and exposure to prolonged stress require major behavioral adaptation. Exposure to (chronic) stress will result in an increased awareness of the body and a burdening of certain physiological and bodily systems (e.g., cardiovascular, immune, and hormone systems). On the long term, if an individual is unable to successfully adapt to stress, this can predispose an individual to disease. Major life events have been related to a number of negative health outcomes, such as psychiatric problems, morbidity, and mortality.

Moreover, in some countries, the conditions of confinement are harsh, including a lack of food and medical services, poor quality of care, limited possibilities for self-care, aggressive incidents, and overcrowding. Such conditions can negatively affect prisoners’ health on the long term and may increase the risk of premature death after release from prison. Furthermore, relatively high rates of chronic and infectious diseases are observed within prison facilities. Therefore, prisoners may be disproportionately exposed to such diseases that can negatively affect their further health and increase their risk of premature death. Finally, it has been argued that prisons can be “schools of crimes” and breeding grounds for further crime. In line with this belief, a prison experience will increase the chances of future criminal and risky behavior and associated risks of experiencing violent encounters in life.

Fourth, imprisonment may have an indirect negative effect on health and therefore increase the risk of premature death. Research has shown that imprisonment can be a turning point, changing the lives of those involved in a negative way. Imprisonment can, for instance, result in long-lasting problems on the labor market, a loss of income, and homelessness. Additionally, incarceration removes the prisoners from their spouses, families, friends, and neighbors. As a consequence, former prisoners can experience difficulties in family formation and dissolution and a decrease in social networks and social capital. Former prisoners often have to deal with stigmatizing reactions that may also negatively affect the degree of social support. All these factors, that is, a low socioeconomic status, unmarried civil state, and decreased social support, are associated with increased mortality risks in themselves.

In sum, criminological and health theories do not provide clear and unequivocal answers but confront us with alternative hypotheses about the way imprisonment can result in either higher or lower risks of premature mortality.

Earlier Research

The limited knowledge on the effects of incarceration on premature death is, to a large extent, due to limitations in the research design of the existing studies. Determining an effect of incarceration on mortality is difficult because a selective group of offenders will enter prison. A review of the literature (see Dirkzwager et al. (2012) for more information) shows that to date only 24 studies worldwide have compared post-prison mortality rates of ex-prisoners with the mortality rates of some kind of comparison group. The studies investigated mortality rates among former inmates in different parts of the world, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Europe. There was a substantial difference in the length of the post-prison follow-up periods.

In most of these studies (i.e., 22 of the 24 studies), the mortality rates of former prisoners were compared with rates in the general population (age and gender adjusted). This is problematic, however, because there are well-known preexisting differences between prisoners and the general population (e.g., in criminal history, educational level, ethnicity, social class, mental health). Therefore, such studies may be seriously biased in their estimates of the effects of incarceration on mortality (i.e., probably overestimating prison effects). Subsequently, such studies are problematic in drawing causal conclusions regarding the effects of imprisonment on post-prison mortality.

However, even the two studies (Fleming et al. 1992; Sattar 2001, 2003) using more appropriate control groups (i.e., offenders receiving noncustodial sentences instead of the general population) did not take selection effects adequately into account. Obviously, the assignment of offenders to custodial or noncustodial sentences is not random. Judges will be more likely to imprison offenders who have committed serious crimes, who have more prior convictions, and who have a high risk of recidivism. The idea that more serious and frequent offenders encounter more difficulties in their lives, including health and mortality problems, is well established.

As mentioned, to identify studies on the effects of imprisonment on post-prison mortality, Dirkzwager et al. (2012) performed an extensive literature search. Based on this search, they identified 24 studies that examined mortality rates among former prisoners, relative to a comparison group. Of the 24 studies, 22 compared mortality rates of former prisoners with rates in the general population, adjusted for age and gender (sometimes also adjusted for race). The results consistently show that compared with gender-and age-adjusted persons from the general population, former inmates were more likely to die from both natural and unnatural causes of death. Former inmates appear particularly at risk of dying during the first few weeks after release from prison. Mortality during the first weeks following release of prison was particularly associated with death by drug overdose. This suggests that, soon after their release, addicted prisoners used drugs again and died due to overdose (perhaps by accident, having not used drugs during imprisonment). Other prevalent causes of unnatural deaths among former prisoners were accidents, suicide, and homicide. Leading causes of natural deaths among former prisoners were cardiovascular diseases, cancer, liver diseases, and infections.

Comparing mortality rates of former prisoners with gender-and age-adjusted persons from the general population can be informative. However, this method can provide only limited information regarding the relationship between imprisonment and the increased risk of premature death. The group of former prisoners and the general population differ on more characteristics than age and gender alone. Prison populations are, for instance, overrepresented by ethnic minorities, people from lower social classes, and people with poor mental and physical health (Sattar 2001); such preexisting differences can also cause differences in mortality rates.

A more adequate approach is to compare former prisoners with a more similar control group, such as offenders who were sentenced to a noncustodial sentence. Only three studies have investigated mortality rates among former prisoners and offenders receiving noncustodial sentences. First, in England and Wales, Sattar (2001, 2003) compared the nature and risk of death of prisoners, with offenders serving community sentences, former prisoners being supervised in the community, and the general population. Standardized mortality rates showed that, compared with the general population, community offenders and former prisoners were both more likely to die. Mortality rates of former prisoners were either somewhat lower (in 1996) or similar (in 1997) to mortality rates of offenders serving community sentences (Sattar 2003). Although these overall mortality rates may seem similar, the study also showed that ex-prisoners were more likely to die within the first weeks after release from prison. These results suggest that the phase immediately after release is particularly risky for ex-prisoners in terms of accidents or incidents with drugs, alcohol, or suicide (Sattar 2003).

Second, in Australia, Fleming et al. (1992) investigated people who died while they were serving a noncustodial correction order during the years 1987 and 1988. The sample consisted of offenders on parole (i.e., ex-prisoners) and offenders serving other community correction orders, such as probation and community service orders. The mortality rate of ex-prisoners was 15.1 per 1,000 orders compared with 10 per 1,000 orders for offenders on probation and 2.2 per 1,000 orders for offenders serving community service orders. The results of their study suggest that former prisoners serving parole orders are at increased risk of premature death compared with people serving other forms of noncustodial sentences. It should be noted, however, that the group of parolees in their study was older than those serving other types of custodial orders, and age is also associated with mortality risks.

Third, in the Netherlands, Dirkzwager et al. (2012) examined the effects of first-time imprisonment on post-prison mortality. Data are used from a longitudinal study examining criminal behavior and mortality over a 25-year period in a representative group of 2,297 Dutch offenders who had their criminal case adjudicated in 1977. Of these offenders, 597 were imprisoned for the first time in their lives in 1977. The remaining 1,700 offenders got a noncustodial sentence. Exprisoners’ mortality rates and causes of death are compared with those in the general population and those in a matched control group of nonimprisoned offenders. Propensity score matching is used to minimize selection bias. Odds ratios with 95 % confidence intervals are used to examine whether mortality among the ex-prisoners differs significantly from the general population or from the non-imprisoned controls. About 18 % of the imprisoned offenders died over the 25-year follow-up period. Compared with the general population (age and gender adjusted), exprisoners are three times as likely to die during the 25-year follow-up (odds ratio [OR] = 3.21). Compared with a more appropriate control group of non-imprisoned offenders (matched on age, gender, and propensity score), ex-prisoners are no longer significantly more likely to die (OR = 1.40). In line with the available research, the Dutch results demonstrate significantly elevated mortality rates among former prisoners when compared with age-and gender-adjusted individuals from the general Dutch population. In the present study, ex-prisoners were three times more likely to die during the 25-year follow-up period than persons from the general population. The difference in mortality rates between former prisoners and nonimprisoned offenders of similar age and gender was substantially smaller and even became nonsignificant when former prisoners were compared with non-imprisoned offenders who were similar regarding age, gender, and propensity score. The results of the present study emphasize the importance of constructing appropriate comparison groups when examining the effects of imprisonment on post-prison mortality.

Unintended Effects Of Imprisonment III: Criminal Behavior Of Children Of Prisoners

Theoretical Background

Reviews by Murray and Farrington (2008a) and Van de Rakt et al. (2012) distinguish four theories that explain how paternal imprisonment might cause an increase in child criminal behavior. First, trauma theories suggest that the parent– child separation caused by the imprisonment might be harmful for children (for a full discussion of this perspective, see Murray and Murray 2010). Attachment theory and social bonding theory both acknowledge the importance of children’s attachment to their parents. The separation caused by imprisonment usually is unexpected, and opportunities for contact are often very restricted during their imprisonment. Following trauma theories, disrupted attachment to the parent following parental imprisonment might cause an increase in children’s delinquent behavior. Parental imprisonment might have stronger effects on children if it is experienced early in childhood, because parent–child bonding in early childhood is particularly important for child development, and separation can be more disruptive when young children have fewer cognitive skills to process the event. Longer separations might predict worse outcomes for children.

Second, modeling and social learning theories suggest that parental imprisonment might cause an increase in child criminal behavior because children become more aware of parental criminality and imitate their parents’ behavior. Differential association theory (Sutherland et al. 1992) proposes that criminal behavior is learned in the same way as normal (accepted) behavior is learned. Thus, learning of criminal behavior primarily takes place in intimate personal groups, such as the family. Not only are the techniques to commit crime learned, but motives, values, and attitudes toward crime are also learned. Association with criminal parents might be especially influential in determining children’s criminal behavior. Parental imprisonment could make children more aware of their parent’s criminality and encourage the idea that committing crimes is normal and desirable. Such learning and imitation processes might be especially strong after early childhood, during adolescence, when children are more aware of the meaning of their parents behavior and imprisonment. At the same time, removal of a highly antisocial parent from the household, because of imprisonment, might mitigate these learning processes and, in some cases, actually reduce the probability that children develop criminal behavior.

Third, strain theories suggest that the loss of economic and social capital due to parental imprisonment causes children to commit more crimes. Parents cannot contribute to family income while in prison, and telephone calls and prison visits can add considerably to family expenses. In the long term, imprisonment might lead to unemployment and fewer labor market opportunities for ex-prisoners. Also, children are more likely to have unstable care arrangements when one of their parents is in prison. Therefore, the quality of parental care and supervision may be reduced by parental imprisonment. Because of reduced income, social capital, and supervision, children with imprisoned parents may have fewer chances in school and in the labor market. This may increase their risk for delinquency compared to children of nonimprisoned parents.

Finally, labeling theories suggest that parental imprisonment might cause children to experience stigma, bullying, and teasing, which increases their criminal behavior. Children might become more reluctant to go to school and to socialize with other children. As a result, children with imprisoned parents might perform worse at school and in the labor market than their peers. There might also be official bias against children of prisoners, making them more likely than other children to be monitored by the police and to be convicted. Labeling mechanisms will be most likely to influence children when parental imprisonment endures for a long period of time and when it is experienced in adolescence. When children are somewhat older, they understand the meaning of parental imprisonment better. In these settings, stigmatization and bullying will be more powerful.

Earlier Research

A critical problem for research is to separate out the effects of parental imprisonment on children from the influence of other childhood risk factors. Large-scale longitudinal studies show that children of prisoners are much more likely than their peers to be exposed to other risk factors, such as low IQ, high daring, poor school attainment, poor parenting practices, parental criminality, and low family socioeconomic status. It is particularly important to disentangle the effects of parental imprisonment from the effects of parental criminality, because prisoners tend to be highly criminal, and there is strong evidence that crime runs in families.

To accurately estimate the long-term risks for children after parental imprisonment and the effects on children’s criminal careers, studies need to use representative samples, suitable control groups, and long-term follow-ups. Five main studies have done this to date (for an extensive review of prior research, see Murray and Farrington 2008a; Van de Rakt et al. 2012).

In the first study, Huebner and Gustafson (2007) compared rates of adult offending behavior between 31 children whose mothers had been imprisoned and 1,666 children whose mothers had not been imprisoned in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY). The NLSY is a prospective longitudinal survey of males and females in the United States, who were aged 14–22 in 1979. Of children with imprisoned mothers, 26 % were convicted as an adult, compared with 10 % of controls. Controlling for background variables (including child, maternal, paternal, family, and peer risk factors), maternal imprisonment still significantly predicted adult convictions. These results are consistent with the idea that maternal imprisonment has a causal effect on children.

In the second study, Murray and Farrington (2005) investigated the effects of parental imprisonment on children in the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD). The CSDD is a prospective longitudinal study of 411 boys, born in 1953 and living in a working-class area of South London. Outcomes were compared between 23 boys who were separated because of parental imprisonment (between birth and age 10) and four control groups: (1) boys with no history of parental imprisonment or parent–child separation (up to age 10), (2) boys separated because of hospitalization or death, (3) boys separated for other reasons, and (4) boys whose parents were imprisoned only before the boy’s birth. Parental imprisonment during childhood was a strong predictor of antisocial-delinquent behavior through the life course. For example, of boys separated because of parental imprisonment, 65 % were convicted themselves between ages 19 and 32, compared with 21 % of boys with no history of parental imprisonment or separation. Effects of parental imprisonment remained even after controlling for other childhood risk factors in the study (including parental criminality), suggesting that parental imprisonment might have a causal effect on children. Parental imprisonment also strongly predicted boys’ mental health problems, educational failure, drug use, and unemployment in the CSDD.

In the third study, Murray et al. (2007) compared rates of adult offending behavior of 283 children whose parents were imprisoned (from the children’s births until they were age 19) and 14,589 children without imprisoned parents in Project Metropolitan. Project Metropolitan is a prospective longitudinal survey of children born in 1953 and living in Stockholm, Sweden (Janson 2000). Parental imprisonment was strongly predictive of offspring criminal behavior between ages 19 and 30. Of prisoners’ children, 25 % offended as adults, compared with 12 % of controls. However, when account was taken of background criminality of parents (using regression analyses and comparing children exposed to parental imprisonment in childhood with children whose parents were imprisoned only before the child’s birth), there were no additional effects of parental imprisonment on children. This suggested that parental imprisonment did not cause offspring offending in Sweden.

In the fourth study, Kinner et al. (2007) compared 137 children whose mothers’ partners had ever been imprisoned with 2,262 children whose mothers’ partners had not been imprisoned in the Mater University Study of Pregnancy. This is a prospective longitudinal survey of 8,458 women who were pregnant in Australia in 1981 and their children. At age 14 years, children whose mothers’ partners had been imprisoned were significantly more likely to have externalizing problems than their peers. However, after controlling for other parental and family risk factors, there was no effect of the imprisonment on child externalizing problems suggesting that the original association was spurious.

In the fifth study, Van de Rakt et al. (2012) investigated the effects of fathers’ imprisonment on criminal convictions of their children (aged 18–30). Unique official data of the Criminal Career and Life-Course Study (CCLS) are used on a nationally representative sample of Dutch men convicted in 1977. Growth curve analysis is used to establish the influence of paternal imprisonment on the development of criminal careers of children. Special attention is paid to the timing and the duration of the imprisonment. The authors demonstrate an association between fathers’ imprisonment and child convictions, especially when fathers are imprisoned when the child is between 0 and 12 years old. When fathers’ criminal history is controlled for, the influence of paternal imprisonment becomes much weaker, although it remains significant. The dose–response relationship between the length of the father’s imprisonment and children’s convictions disappears after controlling for other variables. In the Netherlands, effects of paternal imprisonment on children are very weak and similar to the effects found in another study in Sweden.

In summary, five longitudinal studies show that parental imprisonment is strongly associated with child antisocial and criminal behavior. However, the evidence on causal effects is mixed: two studies suggest that there are causal effects, and three studies suggest that the relationship is weak or even spurious. It is possible that these differences are accounted for by differences in the social and penal contexts where the studies took place.


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