Prisoner talks with his wife on a telephone at the Santa Ana, CA,  jail.  His mother-in-law cares for their baby. MODEL RELEASE

Studies Document Mass Incarceration’s Toll on Families

New studies add to the growing body of research on the toll U.S. mass incarceration is taking on prisoner’s children and families.

Three recent articles in the journal Demography document the spillover effects of the prison boom on family poverty, couples’ relationship stability, and child well-being.

Researchers suggest that the collateral damage related to incarceration may exacerbate social inequality through its negative impact on disadvantaged children and families.

In 2015, the United States had more than 2.17 million people behind bars in state and federal prisons and local jails, representing one of the world’s highest incarceration rates.1 In late 2015, the U.S. incarceration rate (698 per 100,000 population) was second only to the East African island nation of Seychelles (799 per 100,000).2 By contrast, rates for all European countries were under 200 per 100,000 and for Canada stood at 106 per 100,000.

Incarceration is concentrated among minorities: Black and Latino males were significantly more likely to be incarcerated in state and federal prisons in 2015 (1,745 per 100,000 and 820 per 100,000, respectively) than white males (312 per 100,000).3 A majority of U.S. inmates have minor children and 45 percent were living with their children before they were imprisoned, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2010.4

Recently incarcerated fathers and the mothers of their children are much less likely to own key assets linked to economic security and social mobility—a bank account, a car, or a home—compared with their similar peers, report Kristin Turney, University of California-Irvine, and Daniel Schneider, University of California-Berkeley in an article in the journal Demography.5

The researchers use data from the Fragile Families and Wellbeing Study, which tracked parents in 20 large U.S. cities over nine years, to examine the before-and-after impact of incarceration on asset ownership. Because some characteristics are associated with both incarceration and reduced asset ownership (such as substance abuse, domestic violence, low cognitive ability, impulsivity, and prior incarceration), their analysis matched recently incarcerated fathers with other fathers who shared their socioeconomic, demographic, neighborhood, health, and behavioral characteristics, but had no recent incarceration experience. Below are their findings:

  • Among men, recent incarceration reduced the likelihood of owning a bank account and vehicle.
  • For the mothers of their children, fathers’ incarceration affected joint assets such as vehicles and homes, but not bank accounts, which women sometimes held individually.
  • Women who were living with men before they were incarcerated were most likely to lose assets.
  • For men, incarceration tended to lead to both asset loss and barriers to reacquiring assets in the years following release, while their female partners tended to mainly lose assets.
  • Relational factors (ending the relationship with the mother of their child) explained a larger share of the asset loss than the ex-prisoner’s lack of earnings or living in a disadvantaged neighborhood (measured by rates of poverty, unemployment, public assistance receipt, and share over age 25 without a college degree).

The researchers suggest that assistance programs for ex-prisons could bolster economic security by facilitating access to reestablishing credit, low-cost mainstream banking products, and affordable vehicle ownership. Couples counseling and education services (both during incarceration and after) might help preserve weak relationships, they say.

Another recent study shows that among unwed mothers, the incarceration of the child’s father increases her chances of having a child with a different partner and decreases her chances of having another child with the same father, according to Maria Cancian and Daniel R. Meyer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Yiyoon Chung, Konkuk University, South Korea.6

They used records from the Wisconsin child support and corrections systems—which are more complete than self-reported data and accurately reflect the dates of incarceration and release—to explore the impact of incarceration on having children with different partners (multipartner fertility). While limited to unwed Wisconsin parents, the comprehensive sample includes both urban and rural couples. Findings show:

  • Roughly one in eight unwed mothers in the sample of 6,000 experienced the incarceration of their child’s father soon after their child’s birth, reflecting how common paternal incarceration is among Wisconsin’s unmarried recent parents.
  • Twice as many unwed mothers who experienced the incarceration of their child’s father had another baby with a different partner rather than with the same father (14 percent versus 7 percent) within a five-year period.
  • A father’s current incarceration increased the likelihood the mother would have a child with another partner.

The researchers point to widespread and growing evidence of the negative consequences for children of both a father’s incarceration and a mother’s childbearing with another partner—including a greater likelihood of reduced parental time and monetary support, increased family conflict and stress, and more household instability.

A third study finds that children whose fathers are incarcerated between their first and ninth birthday display more behavioral problems (acting out, depression) and early juvenile delinquency than their similar peers whose fathers are not jailed.7 However, a father’s incarceration takes the greatest toll on the most advantaged children—those living with both parents, in nonpoor households, not living in high-poverty neighborhoods. This study by Turney is based on Fragile Families Study data.

Family disruption following a father’s incarceration may be more dramatic for relatively more advantaged children, she suggests. “These families are likely to experience the biggest loss, to suffer the greatest changes in family routines, to be unprepared for the resultant hardship, and to be unable to mobilize social support networks.” For disadvantaged children, “parental incarceration occurs among a saturation of disadvantages.”

This article was produced under a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). NICHD supports the Fragile Families and Wellbeing Study; the Berkeley Population Center at the University of California, Berkeley; and the Center for Demography and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


1. Bureau of Justice Statistics, “U.S. Correctional Population at Lowest Level Since 2002,” press release, Dec. 29, 2016, based on Danielle Kaeble and Lauren Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2015 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), Todd D. Minton and Zhen Zeng, Jail Inmates in 2015 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), and E. Ann Carson and Elizabeth Anderson, Prisoners in 2015 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016), accessed at, on Feb. 6, 2017.

2. Roy Walmsley, “World Prison Population List, 11th Edition,” Institute for Criminal Policy Research, University of London (Feb. 2016), accessed at, on March 1, 2017.

3. E. Ann Carson and Elizabeth Anderson, Prisoners in 2015 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2016).

4. Lauren Glaze and Laura Maruschak, Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children (Revised) (Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2010).

5. Kristin Turney and Daniel Schneider, “Incarceration and Household Asset Ownership,” Demography 53, vol. 6 (2016): 2075-103.

6. Maria Cancian, Yiyoon Chung, and Daniel R. Meyer, “Fathers’ Imprisonment and Mothers’ Multiple-Partner Fertility,” Demography 53, vol. 6 (2016): 2045-74.

7. Kristin Turney, “The Unequal Consequence of Mass Incarceration for Children,” Demography (2017): DOI 10.1007/s15324-0160543-1.