Maternal Incarceration and the Transformation of Urban Family Life

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Incarceration intensely alters the family lives of incarcerated men and the women and children connected to them. Yet women increasingly spend time behind bars and, accordingly, they absorb direct consequences of incarceration in addition to the more commonly considered spillover consequences of men’s incarceration on families. In this article, we draw on the stress process perspective to examine the consequences of maternal incarceration for three broad aspects of family life: romantic relationships, parenting, and economic wellbeing. Data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (N = 3,045), an urban sample that includes a relatively large number of mothers who spent time in jail or prison, and methodological strategies to account for spurious associations between maternal incarceration and family life, yield two important conclusions. First, maternal incarceration is a stressor that proliferates to engender chronic strains in family life. Second, many of these chronic strains are especially acute when maternal incarceration is accompanied by paternal incarceration. Taken together, these findings suggest that the stressor of maternal incarceration has reverberating consequences for family life.

Turney, Kristin, and Christopher Wildeman. 2018. “Maternal Incarceration and the Transformation of Urban Family Life.” Social Forces 96:1155–1182.