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Focus - Neither Here Nor There Incarceration and Family, Kristin Turney, 2013

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Neither here nor there: Incarceration and family
Kristin Turney

Kristin Turney is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the
University of California, Irvine.

Family instability in the United States has increased dramatically since the 1970s. Demographic changes in family life
including postponement of marriage, more short-term cohabiting unions, and a dramatic increase in the rate of births
to unmarried parents, mean that considerable numbers of
adults and children experience frequent relationship churning in their family lives. Family instability has been found to
impede parenting practices, increase stress and mental health
problems, reduce social support networks, and increase poverty and material hardship. Instability is also linked to many
detrimental outcomes for children, including behavioral
problems, reduced educational achievement and attainment,
and health deficiencies. Some scholars have suggested that
family instability, which is disproportionately concentrated
among economically disadvantaged groups, may increase
income inequality and contribute to the intergenerational
transmission of poverty.1
Another recent demographic change in the United States—
the rapid and dramatic rise in mass incarceration—may
contribute to family instability. About 2.3 million U.S. residents (1 in every 134 individuals) are incarcerated in prisons
or jails, and even larger numbers of individuals have been
recently released back to their families and communities.2
There are compelling reasons to believe that mass incarceration, most often experienced by poorly educated minority
men, contributes to family instability.3 Indeed, most of these
men—prior to confinement, while behind bars, and after
release—are connected to families as romantic partners and

es of incarceration for the dissolution of marital, cohabiting,
and nonresidential romantic relationships.5 Given the considerable number of families affected by incarceration, the
unequal distribution of incarceration across the population,
and the potential consequences of family instability for the
intergenerational transmission of inequality, understanding
how the expanding penal system affects relationship dissolution is an important new area of research.
I explore the possible connections in this article, examining
analyses done using data from the Fragile Families and Child
Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal survey of parents who share
children. I consider three previously unexplored research
questions that extend our knowledge about the collateral effects of incarceration on relationship dissolution. First, how
is paternal incarceration associated with dissolution among
couples that share children? Second, does this association
vary by parents’ relationship status when their child was
born? Third, to what extent do post-incarceration changes in
family life (including relationship quality, economic wellbeing, and physical and mental health) explain the association between incarceration and relationship dissolution?

Betwixt and between: The status of
incarcerated men

Incarcerated men are simultaneously members of and isolated from families, and are by and large unable to perform
their roles as romantic partners and fathers. Maintaining
contact with incarcerated partners is difficult and costly for
women, while men, upon their release, may face a variety
of consequences including stigma and discrimination, difficulty finding employment, and increased physical and
mental health problems. All of these consequences could
make reintegration into family life difficult.

The recent dramatic rise in incarceration, resulting largely
from increased harsh sentencing policies for nonviolent
offenses, has had profound implications for the lives of
American men. Incarceration has especially transformed
the life course of low-educated minority men living in impoverished neighborhoods. Approximately 60 percent of
black men without a high school diploma have served time
in prison by their early 30s.6 For many young black men,
incarceration has become a normative life course stage and a
rite of passage. Isolation is common, both in prison and upon
release, and police presence, which is heightened in poor
communities, can make it more difficult for former prisoners
to adjust to life after incarceration. Formerly incarcerated
men frequently experience discrimination, encounter political disenfranchisement, and have difficulty securing stable
housing. 7 Further, those who have outstanding warrants,
even for minor infractions, may avoid formal employment,
hospitals, and sometimes even family and friends for fear of
going back to prison.8

Despite considerable recent research on the effects of incarceration on family life more generally, as well as a vast
literature documenting how marriage leads to a reduction in
crime, there has been much less research on the consequenc-

Additionally, incarcerated men experience a “liminal” state
that complicates the maintenance of romantic relationships.
Liminality refers to individuals who are “neither here nor
there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned

Focus Vol. 30, No. 2, Fall/Winter 2013–14


and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremony.”9
Liminality, according to Victor Turner, begins when individuals are removed and isolated from society, and ends with
individuals reintegrating back into normal life and assuming
their former roles.10 During the liminal stage, individuals’
roles become increasingly ambiguous, with their rights and
obligations unclearly defined and aspects of their future uncertain. Incarceration forces people into a liminal state.
Turner’s conception of liminality did not include predictions
about its consequences, but it is plausible that this stage has
lasting, negative consequences for individuals. For incarcerated men, their role in family life, in particular, becomes
suspended between what they left behind and an unknown
future. These men are members of families, but simultaneously isolated from those families. Therefore, it is possible
that this liminality leads to relationship dissolution. While
some women are committed to maintaining relationships
with incarcerated partners, doing so is complicated.11 Incarcerated individuals have limited, regulated, and institutionalized contact with romantic partners. Prisons are often located
far from inmates’ communities, which can make visits timeconsuming and expensive. One researcher estimates that 60
percent of prison inmates are located more than 100 miles
from their families.12 The often inflexible visiting schedules
and the expense of making long-distance calls from prisons
complicate relationship maintenance. The physical separation of partners may create deficits in emotional interactions
and increased household labor for the partner left behind.13
Incarceration may also create ambiguous family boundaries, leaving men confused about their identities as romantic
partners and fathers, and leaving women without economic
and emotional support crucial for maintaining successful
relationships.14 The difficulties faced by these marginal men
likely continue after release, as men struggle to reintegrate
into family life with partners who have moved on, both psychologically and romantically.15 The stigma of incarceration,
including the spillover stigma experienced by families of the
incarcerated, may also make former inmates’ reintegration
into family life difficult.

Mechanisms linking incarceration and
relationship dissolution
There are at least three plausible mechanisms that may link
incarceration to relationship dissolution: changes in relationship quality, changes in economic well-being, and changes in
physical and mental health resulting from the incarceration
For one, the association between incarceration and relationship dissolution may operate through changes in relationship
quality. Although men often return to their pre-incarceration
families and communities after release, the isolating and
regimented prison experience may alter their personalities in
ways that make maintaining romantic relationships difficult.
Even among couples with high-quality relationships prior to

incarceration, the time spent apart may lead to poor communication, decreased supportiveness, and increased conflict.
Ethnographic work shows that the incarceration experience
may encourage men to engage in violent behavior.16 Romantic partners who experience a significant drop in relationship
quality are likely to dissolve their union.
In addition, incarceration may diminish economic wellbeing—among both the incarcerated and their romantic
partners—and, therefore, increase relationship dissolution.
Incarcerated men have few opportunities to earn income
and, after release their criminal record makes it difficult to
find employment. Women attached to incarcerated men may
also have increased parenting and household responsibilities
that force them to leave the paid labor force, and thus impede
their ability to maintain the family’s economic standard of
living.17 Indeed, perhaps because most men contribute economically to their families prior to incarceration, research
shows that incarceration reduces family income, intensifies
material hardship, and increases reliance on some forms of
public assistance.18 The stress associated with economic
insecurity may create conflict within families and lead to
Finally, the association between incarceration and relationship dissolution may operate through changes in physical
and mental health patterns among both partners. The physical and mental health consequences of incarceration have
been documented, but these effects may extend beyond the
offender.20 Qualitative research documents that the incarceration of a romantic partner is associated with anxiety,
uncertainty, and loneliness.21 These feelings may persist
after release, as women worry about their partners violating parole and their children’s adjustment to their father’s
return.22 Poor physical and mental health have been linked to
union dissolution.23

Existing evidence on the consequences of
incarceration for relationship dissolution
What does existing literature say about the effect of incarceration on relationship dissolution in the United States? By
and large, quantitative research suggests that incarceration
increases marital dissolution. For example, data from the
National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979, a longitudinal
study uniquely positioned and often used to study the consequences of incarceration, finds that incarcerated men have
a higher probability of divorce or separation than their nonincarcerated counterparts.24 Other researchers find that this
association between incarceration and divorce is explained
by the length of incarceration.25
Qualitative research on nonmarital relationships documents
a more complicated and nuanced portrait of family life during and after a partner’s incarceration than does quantitative
research on marital relationships. These qualitative portraits
show that relationship stability and instability result from
a complex interplay of both men’s and women’s reactions

to the incarceration. Men, for example, may use incarceration as a time to reflect on their familial roles. Their liminal
status may lead to internal confusion, but some men return
to families ready to reprise their roles as romantic partners
and fathers.26 Women’s perspectives have been shown to be
equally nuanced; some women are committed to maintaining
relationships with incarcerated partners, while others use the
incarceration as an excuse to hasten an inevitable breakup.27
Variation by relationship status
As suggested above, the effects of incarceration on relationship dissolution may be moderated by relationship type, and
research has yet to thoroughly examine this possibility.28 It
is possible that incarceration equally disrupts marital, cohabiting, and nonresidential romantic relationships. Many
features of incarceration—the removal of men from families
and communities, the challenges associated with maintaining romantic relationships while a romantic partner is behind
bars, and the liminal status of incarceration—may be difficult for couples in all types of relationships. Similarly, the
mechanisms linking incarceration to relationship dissolution—changes in relationship quality, economic well-being,
and physical and mental health—may also equally affect
marital, cohabiting, and nonresidential romantic relationships.
It is also possible, however, that the association varies by relationship type prior to incarceration. On the one hand, incarceration may be more consequential for marital relationships
than cohabiting or nonresidential romantic relationships. Indeed, Tach and Edin find that relationship and economic conditions are more strongly associated with the dissolution of
marital than cohabiting unions.29 On the other hand, marital
unions are governed by greater norms and expectations than
other unions, which may cause some individuals to salvage
their marriage and avoid divorce at all costs.

I use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing
Study to assess: (1) how paternal incarceration is associated
with relationship dissolution among couples that share children; (2) whether this association varies by parents’ relationship status at the time of their child’s birth; and (3) to what
extent the association between incarceration and relationship
dissolution can be explained by post-incarceration changes
in family life, including relationship quality, economic wellbeing, and physical and mental health.
I look first at the relationship between incarceration and
relationship dissolution. As expected, the likelihood of a
breakup, especially early in the child’s life, varies quite
dramatically by father’s incarceration. However, given the
very different characteristics of couples that do and do not
experience incarceration, these differences may result not
from incarceration but instead from other factors associated
with both incarceration and relationship dissolution. Using
various models to control for these factors, my results sug-

gest that the association between incarceration and relationship dissolution is large in magnitude but relatively shortlived.30 When partners manage to survive the initial period
of confinement, incarceration has no lasting consequences
on dissolution.
Next, I consider the possibility that the association between
incarceration and relationship dissolution varies by relationship status. Given that results for the full sample show no
association between incarceration and delayed relationship
dissolution, I consider only dissolution within a two year
period. The results for both married couples and couples
cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth show the same
relationship between incarceration and relationship dissolution that was found for the full sample. Although analyses of
couples in a nonresidential romantic relationship at the time
of their child’s birth show no independent association between incarceration and relationship dissolution, interaction
terms included in models estimating dissolution for the full
sample are statistically insignificant, suggesting that the relationship between incarceration and relationship dissolution
does not vary by relationship status.31 These results should
be interpreted cautiously, as it is quite possible the statistically insignificant interaction terms result from the small
sample size. Indeed, the direction of interaction effects for
nonresidential romantic couples suggests that incarceration
may be less harmful for their relationships than for married
Finally, I look at mechanisms underlying the association
between incarceration and relationship dissolution. The
association between incarceration and relationship dissolution may result from the direct effect of incarceration, or
alternatively may result from a number of indirect pathways including changes in relationship quality, changes in
economic well-being, and changes in physical and mental
health. Additional analyses provide little evidence that most
theorized mechanisms—including declining relationship
quality, reduced economic well-being, and worse physical
and mental health—explain the link between incarceration
and relationship dissolution.

My analysis of how incarceration affects relationship dissolution yields three main conclusions. Perhaps most
consequentially, results show that among couples with
children, incarceration leads to a greater likelihood of relatively immediate relationship dissolution. Since couples who
separate before their child turns three are excluded from the
sample, these results are conservative. Second, I find no
clear evidence that the association between incarceration and
dissolution varies among married, cohabiting, and nonresidential couples. Considering this possibility is important, as
it bridges the quantitative research on the effects of incarceration for divorce and the qualitative literature on mostly
unmarried couples. These findings suggest that, regardless of
level of relationship commitment, maintaining relationships

while one partner is behind bars is difficult. Importantly,
these results also suggest that previous quantitative research,
which has nearly exclusively considered marital dissolution,
underestimates the consequences of incarceration for family
life. Third, I find that three plausible mechanisms—changes
in relationship quality, changes in economic well-being, and
changes in physical and mental health resulting from incarceration—explain, by and large, very little of the association
between incarceration and relationship dissolution. One
explanation for these findings is that this association stems
directly from the liminality associated with incarceration.
The ambiguity associated with the period of confinement,
the resultant changes in men’s personalities, or women’s opportunities to meet other partners may have direct, negative
implications for their romantic relationships. When unions
dissolve during incarceration, as opposed to after re-entry,
liminality may be further intensified.
An alternative possibility, of course, is that other unmeasured pathways—such as women’s increasing share of
household labor, infrequency of contact between partners
during confinement, or declining family support—link incarceration to relationship dissolution. Though the data do
not permit an examination of these possibilities, it seems
unlikely that these factors—but not changes in relationship
quality, which are correlated with these factors—would
explain this large association. In this study, data on relationship status were collected at study entry and three, five, and
nine years later. Future quantitative research should collect
data at more regular intervals (such as weekly or monthly) to
more precisely identify the timing of dissolution and further
unravel the familial and decision-making processes leading
to dissolution. Future qualitative research should systematically consider the processes underlying dissolution among
marital and nonmarital couples.
Taken together, my findings on incarceration and relationship dissolution make several important theoretical and
empirical contributions. The theoretical contributions are
primarily related to liminality. I draw on the work of Victor
Turner, who first put forth the idea of liminality (primarily to
describe rites of passage), to suggest that incarceration embodies a liminal experience. Incarcerated men are “betwixt
and between”—they are currently separated and isolated
from their families. But, at the same time, they are members
of families and eventually will be reintegrated into society
and at least some of their family roles. Additionally, I extend
Turner’s theory to consider the consequences of this status,
and show that the liminality of incarceration often leads to
relationship dissolution and thereby further marginalizes
already marginal men.
Empirically, my findings advance our knowledge about
incarceration and relationship dissolution in several ways.
First, I consider dissolution among married, cohabiting,
and nonresidential romantic couples. The consideration of
multiple relationship types is important because the modal
prisoner is in a romantic relationship but not a marital one.
This is also important because children—especially chil24

dren in disadvantaged communities where incarceration is
common—are increasingly born to unmarried parents and
experience poor outcomes when these unions dissolve. I
also consider both short-term jail spells, the most common
type of incarceration, and long-term prison spells. This, in
combination with the focus on both marital and nonmarital
relationships, means the results are applicable to a much
broader group of the population than was the case for previous research.
Though data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing
Survey provide an exceptional opportunity to examine the
consequences of incarceration for family life, the data have
several limitations. To begin with, the incarceration measure
is limited, as it does not distinguish between different lengths
of incarceration, nor between prison and jail incarceration. It
is possible that both of these factors may differentially affect
family instability. Similarly, the association between incarceration and relationship dissolution may vary by the father’s
distance from home or the frequency of mother’s visits. The
data also do not include the precise timing of relationship
dissolution, and is instead limited to broad time periods.
In order to ensure that incarceration precedes dissolution,
a necessary requirement to estimate the causal link from
incarceration to relationship dissolution, I must examine
only current incarceration—as opposed to incarceration that
occurred in the recent past—which limits the sample size.
The sample is further limited by fathers at risk of relationship
dissolution (those in a romantic relationship at the three-year
survey). Even with these sample restrictions, these analyses
preclude causal conclusions. Unobserved heterogeneity may
exist, though findings from sensitivity analyses suggest that
is unlikely that the results are explained by it.
Despite the data limitations, my findings add to a growing
body of literature on the consequences of paternal incarceration for family life and the intergenerational transmission of
inequality. Similar to the recent demographic changes that
have transformed family life, such as trends in nonmarital
childbearing, incarceration rates, as well as social inequality
in incarceration rates, have increased rapidly over the past
four decades. Incarcerated individuals do not exist in isolation. Instead, while incarcerated, they experience a period
of liminality where they are both connected to and disconnected from their families, which contributes to relationship
dissolution. By documenting how and under what conditions
the collateral consequences of incarceration extend beyond
the offender, and spill over onto his family, this research
highlights the considerable influence and unintended consequences of the penal system on family relationships.n

See, for example, S. McLanahan and C. Percheski, “Family Structure and
the Reproduction of Inequalities,” Annual Review of Sociology 34 (2008):


L. Glaze, Correctional Populations in the United States, 2010, Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2011.



See, for example, W. J. Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City,
the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,


C. J. Mumola, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children. Bureau of Justice
Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,



For the effects of incarceration on family life in general, see for example:
C. Wildeman, J. Schnittker, and K. Turney, “Despair by Association? The
Mental Health of Mothers with Children by Recently Incarcerated Fathers,”
American Sociological Review 77 (2012): 216–243; for the effects of marriage on crime, see for example R. D. King, M. Massoglia, and R. Macmillan, “The Context of Marriage and Crime: Gender, the Propensity to Marry,
and Offending in Early Adulthood,” Criminology 45 (2007): 33–65.


B. Pettit and B. Western, “Mass Imprisonment and the Life Course: Race
and Class Inequality in U.S. Incarceration,” American Sociological Review
69 (2004): 151–169.


For discrimination findings see D. Pager, “The Mark of a Criminal Record,” American Journal of Sociology 108 (2003): 937–975; for political
disenfranchisement see C. Uggen and J. Manza, “Democratic Contraction?
Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States,”
American Sociological Review 67 (2002): 777–803; and for housing, see
A. Geller and M. A. Curtis, “A Sort of Homecoming: Incarceration and
the Housing Security of Urban Men,” Social Science Research 40 (2011):


A. Goffman, “On the Run: Wanted Men in a Philadelphia Ghetto,” American Sociological Review 74 (2009): 339–357.


V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York:
Aldine Transaction, 1969).

Individuals in a liminal state are eventually reintegrated into society.
Therefore, those who are incarcerated for life without possibility of parole
would not be considered to be in a liminal state.

M. Comfort, Doing Time Together: Love and Family in the Shadow of the
Prison (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Mumola, Incarcerated Parents and Their Children.


M. Massoglia, B. M. Michael, and R. D. King, “Stigma or Separation?
Understanding the Incarceration-Divorce Relationship,” Social Forces 90
(2011): 133–155.

D. Braman, Doing Time on the Outside: Incarceration and Family Life in
Urban America (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2004).

A. M. Nurse, Fatherhood Arrested: Parenting from Within the Juvenile
Justice System (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2002).

R. H. Aseltine and R. C. Kessler, “Marital Disruption and Depression in
a Community Sample,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 34 (1993):
L. M. Lopoo and B. Western, “Incarceration and the Formation and
Stability of Marital Unions,” Journal of Marriage and Family 67 (2005):
721–734; also see Apel, Robert, A. A. J. Blokland, P. Nieuwbeerta, and
M. van Schellen, “The Impact of Imprisonment on Marriage and Divorce:
A Risk Set Matching Approach,” Journal of Quantitative Criminology 26
(2010): 269–300 for an examination of the association between incarceration and divorce in The Netherlands.


Massoglia, Remster, and King, “Stigma or Separation?”

K. Edin, T. J. Nelson, and R. Paranal. “Fatherhood and Incarceration as
Potential Turning Points in the Criminal Careers of Unskilled Men,” in
Imprisoning America: The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration, edited by
M. Patillo, D. Weiman, and B. Western (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2004).


For commitment to maintaining relationships, see Comfort, Doing Time
Together; for using incarceration as an excuse to separate, see K. Edin
and M. Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood
Before Marriage (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California
Press, 2005).


Indeed, demographic changes in the United States mean that children
are increasingly growing up in diverse family structures. Non-marital
childbearing has risen steadily in recent years, and children born to unmarried parents now account for 41 percent of all births in the United States,
including 72 percent of births to African Americans and 53 percent of births
to Hispanics, see B. E. Hamilton, J. A. Martin, and S. J. Ventura, “Births:
Preliminary Data for 2011,” National Vital Statistics Reports, 61, No. 5
(2012). About half of unmarried parents are cohabiting when their child is
born, see G. Martinez, K. Daniels, and A. Chandra, “Fertility of Men and
Women Aged 15–44 Years in the United States: National Survey of Family
Growth, 2006–2010,” National Health Statistics Report 51 (2012).


L. Tach and K. Edin, “The Compositional and Institutional Sources of
Union Dissolution for Married and Unmarried Parents,” Demography 50
(2013): 1789–1818.


In supplemental analyses, I restricted the sample estimating immediate
relationship dissolution to the smaller sample used to estimate delayed
relationship dissolution. Results are consistent, suggesting the differential
findings for immediate and delayed dissolution do not result from different


Results from propensity score models are similar to results from logistic
regression models.


Nurse, Fatherhood Arrested.


J. A. Arditti, J. Lambert-Shute, and K. Joest. “Saturday Morning at the Jail:
Implications of Incarceration for Families and Children,” Family Relations
52 (2003): 195–204.

N. F. Sugie, “Punishment and Welfare: Paternal Incarceration and Families’ Receipt of Public Assistance,” Social Forces 90 (2012): 1403–1427.

S. McLanahan, “Fragile Families and the Reproduction of Poverty,” The
ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621,
No. 1 (2009): 111–131.

See, for example, J. Schnittker, M. Massoglia, and C. Uggen, “Out and
Down: Incarceration and Psychiatric Disorders,” Journal of Health and
Social Behavior 53 (2012): 448–464.

S. W. Daniel and C. J. Barrett, “The Needs of Prisoners’ Wives: A Challenge for the Mental Health Professions,” Community Mental Health Journal 17 (1981): 310–322.

J. J. Turanovic, N. Rodriguez, and T. C. Pratt, “The Collateral Consequences of Incarceration Revisited: A Qualitative Analysis of the Effects
on Caregivers of Children of Incarcerated Parents,” Criminology 50 (2012):