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Predictors and Effects of Prison Visitation for Children, Melinda Tasca, ASU Dissertation, 2014

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Document Title:

“It’s Not All Cupcakes and Lollipops”: An
Investigation of the Predictors and Effects of
Prison Visitation for Children during Maternal
and Paternal Incarceration

Author(s):

Melinda Tasca

Document No.:

248650

Date Received:

February 2015

Award Number:

2013-IJ-CX-0011

This report has not been published by the U.S. Department of Justice.
To provide better customer service, NCJRS has made this federally
funded grant report available electronically.

Opinions or points of view expressed are those
of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect
the official position or policies of the U.S.
Department of Justice.

“It’s Not All Cupcakes and Lollipops”:
An Investigation of the Predictors and Effects of Prison Visitation
for Children during Maternal and Paternal Incarceration
by
Melinda Tasca

A Dissertation Presented in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree
Doctor of Philosophy

Approved March 2014 by the
Graduate Supervisory Committee:
Nancy Rodriguez, Chair
Cassia Spohn
Marjorie Zatz

ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY
May 2014

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

ABSTRACT
The purpose of this project is to better understand the factors associated with, and
effects of, prison visitation for children during maternal and paternal incarceration. As
gatekeepers, caregivers play a pivotal role in the facilitation of parent-child prison
visitation. Yet, some caregivers may be more likely to take children to visit than others.
Additionally, among those children who do visit, visitation may be positive in some ways
and negative in others. To advance prior work, this study (1) assesses the relationship
between caregiver type and parent-child prison visitation and (2) investigates the
emotional and behavioral responses of children who visit.
The current research uses mixed-methods and is carried out in two phases. For
Phase 1, quantitative data on 984 children collected from structured interviews with
incarcerated parents (N=279 mothers; N=143 fathers) in the Arizona Department of
Corrections are used to examine the relationship between caregiver type and the
likelihood of parent-child prison visitation. Descriptive statistics and logistic regression
analyses are conducted separately for maternal and paternal incarceration. Phase 2 draws
on caregivers’ accounts of 40 children who visit their parent in prison to assess children’s
emotional and behavioral reactions to visitation. Data are coded to identify positive and
negative responses, “visitation paradox” indicators, prior life circumstances and child
age. Thematic content analyses are conducted to capture major themes.
Analyses from Phase 1 confirm a significant relationship between caregiver type
and mother-child and father-child visitation. Other factors that affected the likelihood of

i

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

parental visitation included child situational factors, parent stressors, institutional barriers
and child demographics, although these effects differed depending upon which parent
was in prison. Results from Phase 2 revealed overwhelmingly negative responses among
children to parental prison visitation. Key themes that accounted for child reactions
included institutional context and parental attachment.
This research adds to the collateral consequences of incarceration literature by
providing greater insight into the imprisonment experience for vulnerable families.
Further, these results have direct implications for correctional policy and practice
pertaining to the manner and regulation of prison visits and also inform reentry efforts
through a family-centric approach.

ii

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
First and foremost, I would like to thank my mentor and dissertation committee
chair—Nancy Rodriguez—for providing me the opportunity to serve as project manager
for the larger Children of Incarcerated Parents Project that made this research possible. I
am forever grateful for all of her guidance and continued support. I would also like to
extend many thanks to the members of my committee—Cassia Spohn and Marjorie
Zatz—for their invaluable comments and insights on this research. Likewise, I want to
thank Travis Pratt for his helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this dissertation.
Second, I would like to thank the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC).
Specifically, the administration for granting us access, correctional staff who were so
accommodating during data collection and a special thanks to the ADC research
division—Dr. Michael Dolny in particular—for providing us with official data. I would
be remiss if I did not also extend thanks to my fellow graduate students who worked on
this project—Jillian Turanovic in particular.
Third, I want to formally acknowledge the incarcerated parents and caregivers
who participated in this study, who trusted us enough to share their families’ experiences.
I remain committed to advancing knowledge about the consequences of incarceration for
prisoners, caregivers and children.
Finally, I would like to thank the U.S. Department of Justice for funding this
dissertation under the Graduate Research Fellowship Program. It is a true honor to have
been selected as a 2013 National Institute of Justice Fellow.

iii

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Page
LIST OF TABLES .................................................................................................................vii
CHAPTER
1

INTRODUCTION .....................................................................................................1
Caregiver Type and Prison Visitation: The Notion of Gatekeeping ..............4
Prison Visitation and Child Responses ..........................................................7
Research Purpose and Significance ...............................................................10

2

THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK .............................................................................14
Political and Historical Context of Mass Imprisonment ................................15
Parallels between Prison Visitation and Tough on Crime Movement ...........25
The “Gatekeepers”: The Power of Caregiver Type .......................................29
Maternal incarceration .......................................................................32
Paternal incarceration.........................................................................38
How Do They Fare? Prison Visitation and Child Responses ........................44
Benefits of prison visitation: Attachment ..........................................48
Harms of prison visitation: Secondary prisonization .........................52
Theoretical and empirical extensions.................................................56
Synthesis and Current Research.....................................................................59

3

DATA AND METHODS ..........................................................................................63
Introduction ....................................................................................................63
Setting ............................................................................................................64

iv

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

CHAPTER

Page
Caregiver Type and Parent-Child Prison Visitation ......................................67
Data ....................................................................................................67
Dependent variables ...........................................................................71
Key independent variables .................................................................72
Relevant controls ...............................................................................73
Unit of analysis ..................................................................................75
Analytic strategy ................................................................................75
Prison Visitation and Child Responses ..........................................................76
Data ....................................................................................................76
Thematic codes ..................................................................................79
Unit of analysis ..................................................................................81
Analytic strategy ................................................................................81
Conclusion .....................................................................................................83

4

RESULTS FOR CAREGIVER TYPE AND THE LIKELIHOOD OF PRISON
VISITATION .............................................................................................................84
Introduction ....................................................................................................84
Descriptive Statistics of Maternal Prison Visitation ......................................89
Descriptive Statistics of Paternal Prison Visitation .......................................92
Logistic Regression Results: Maternal Incarceration ....................................95
Logistic Regression Results: Paternal Incarceration......................................100

v

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

CHAPTER
5

Page

FINDINGS FOR CHILD RESPONSES TO PRISON VISITATION .......................102
Introduction ....................................................................................................102
“Visitation Paradox”: Institutional Context ...................................................106
“Visitation Paradox”: Parental Attachment ...................................................110
Conclusion .....................................................................................................115

6

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION........................................................................118
The Influence of Caregiver Type on Prison Visitation ..................................119
Maternal incarceration .......................................................................119
Paternal incarceration.........................................................................124
Child Responses to Prison Visitation .............................................................128
Theoretical Contributions ..............................................................................131
Empirical Contributions .................................................................................134
Limitations .....................................................................................................135
Directions for Future Research ......................................................................139
Policy Implications ........................................................................................142
Conclusion .....................................................................................................147

REFERENCES ......................................................................................................................149

vi

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

LIST OF TABLES
Table

Page

1. Coding Scheme .................................................................................................................87
2. Descriptive Statistics of Paternal Prison Visitation ..........................................................90
3. Descriptive Statistics of Maternal Prison Visitation .........................................................93
4. Logistic Regression Results: Caregiver Type on the Likelihood of Parent-Child
Visitation ...........................................................................................................................98

vii

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Chapter 1
Introduction
As mass imprisonment transformed from a movement into a staple in American
society over the past three decades, scholars have begun to document its broad reaching
effects on prisoners, children, families and communities (Arditti, 2012; Clear, 2007;
Murray & Farrington, 2008a; 2008b; Petersilia, 2003; Pratt, 2009; Travis & Waul, 2003;
Turanovic, Rodriguez & Pratt, 2012). A major take away from this growing body of work
is that imprisonment is a complex and often taxing process for those who experience it
directly or indirectly. Specifically, the collateral consequences of incarceration literature
shows us how the cyclical nature of imprisonment contributes to the deterioration of
families in poor, predominately minority neighborhoods (Clear, 2007; Foster & Hagan,
2007; Wildeman, 2014) and how the punishment prisoners receive extends well beyond
their prison terms through disenfranchisement in the realms of employment, housing, and
parental rights (Alexander, 2010; Manza & Uggen, 2006; Western & Muller, 2013). This
body of work further illustrates how children of incarcerated parents—often referred to as
“the hidden victims of the prison boom” (Petersilia, 2005, p. 34)—experience a cascade
of emotional, behavioral, structural and economic difficulties in their lives (Geller,
Garfinkel, Cooper & Mincy, 2009; Murray, Janson & Farrington, 2007; Tasca,
Turanovic, White & Rodriguez, 2014; Wakefield & Wildeman, 2011; Wildeman, 2014).
Despite the great strides that have been made, we still know relatively little about
family members’ connections to incarcerated men and women during imprisonment
(Turney, 2014). Given that the majority of prisoners are mothers and fathers to minor
1

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

children, understanding the predictors and effects of in-prison parent-child contact (e.g.,
prison visitation) are important for research and policy alike. Specifically, decisions to
remain connected to an imprisoned parent (or not) can have ramifications for family
functioning and child well-being in both the short and long terms.
In an effort to situate parental prison contact within the broader collateral
consequences of incarceration literature, it is important to first understand the scope of
American imprisonment. Due to nationwide efforts initiated in the 1980s to “get tough”
on offenders—particularly drug offenders—America experienced an unprecedented
prison boom that is still in full swing today (Alexander, 2010; Mauer, 2006; Pratt, 2009;
Provine, 2011; Tonry, 2011). The reliance on incarceration as the chief policy response to
crime resulted in a sevenfold increase in the prison population (Western, 2006; McShane,
2008). This has resulted in a rate of incarceration that is higher than the rest of the world
(Owen, 1998). In fact, it is estimated that the United States incarcerates its citizens at
rates of up to fifteen times higher than those of other Western nations (Tonry, 2011).
While the majority of prisoners are men, the rate by which female imprisonment has
grown in recent years has surpassed that of their male counterparts. Specifically, since
1991, male incarceration rates have increased by 77% whereas female rates have
increased by 131% (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). This surge in incarceration has generated
a population of male and female prisoners that is largely poor, African American or
Latino/a, and most of whom are parents of minor children (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008;
Lenox, 2011; Western & Muller, 2013).

2

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since the majority of prisoners are parents, current incarceration practices have
inevitably touched the lives of a substantial number of children. The latest Bureau of
Justice Statistics report estimates that nearly two million children have a parent
incarcerated in the state or federal prison system; this accounts for approximately two
percent of the total minor population in the United States (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008).
Some scholars posit that this figure may even underestimate the actual number of
children with an incarcerated parent in that the number of children who experience
parental imprisonment is not systematically collected by correctional institutions,
schools, child welfare agencies, or other public systems (Poehlmann, Dallaire, Loper &
Shear, 2010). The bottom line is that a large segment of American society—
predominately poor, minority families—has experienced incarceration in some way.
What this means for family functioning, ability to remain connected, and the well-being
of children during the parent’s imprisonment deserves further empirical and policy
attention.
One meaningful way for families to remain connected during incarceration is
through prison visitation. In light of rising incarceration rates and increasingly lengthy
prison sentences, there is great debate surrounding how prison contact occurs, who
regulates contact, and the effects of contact on children (Arditti, 2005; 2012; Poehlmann
et al., 2010). While letters and phone calls are also available contact methods, the quality
of these forms of communication are arguably inferior to what in-person contact can
provide (Christian, 2005; Murray & Farrington, 2006). A prison visit provides a face-toface opportunity to maintain or rebuild relationships disrupted by imprisonment and other
3

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

prior life stressors (Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Maruna & Toch, 2005; Snyder, 2009). In
other words, prison visitation may be considered a “reset” button for prisoners,
caregivers, and children as they attempt to settle the past, discuss the present and plan for
the future. At the same time, however, prison visitation can be an arduous undertaking—
emotionally, physically, and economically—for children and caregivers (Arditti, 2003;
Arditti, Smock & Parkman, 2005; Christian, 2005; Christian & Kennedy, 2011).
Estimates reveal that between one-fourth and two-thirds of children visit their parent in
prison (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Glaze & Maruschak, 2008; Poehlmann, Shlafer,
Maes & Hanneman, 2008). Why some children visit, and how children who visit their
incarcerated mothers and fathers fare, remain open questions and thus, are the focus of
this dissertation.
Caregiver Type and Prison Visitation: The Notion of Gatekeeping
In considering what factors account for parent-child prison visitation, it is
important to note that children cannot visit alone. Caregivers—whether consciously or
not—become gatekeepers of the child's relationship with an incarcerated parent (Nesmith
& Ruhland, 2008; Swanson, Chang-Bae, Sansone & Tatum, 2013; Turney & Wildeman,
2013). Caregivers are in a pivotal position as they may facilitate a relationship between
the children and their parent via prison visitation or prohibit such contact all together
(Cecil, McHale, Strozier & Pietsch, 2008; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Roy & Dyson,
2005). The children, in turn, are dependent on their caregiver's actions to nurture or
inhibit that relationship (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Poehlmann, 2003; Swanson et al.,
2013). National statistics indicate that far fewer children with an incarcerated parent live
4

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

in foster care than live with the other parent or another relative such as a grandparent
(Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). As such, most decisions about a child’s contact with an
incarcerated parent are made by a family member rather than by a children’s court judge
or social worker (Poehlmann et al., 2010).
The living situations of children vary depending upon whether a child experiences
paternal or maternal incarceration. While incarcerated fathers rely on their children's
mothers to maintain contact with children during their incarceration (Roy & Dyson,
2005), mothers' contact with children is enabled most often by grandmothers (Cecil et al.
2008). As Pollock (2002) observed, “visitation rooms in women’s prisons are mostly
filled with family members (typically mothers); visitation rooms in men’s prisons are
usually filled with wives and girlfriends” (p. 111). Surprisingly, however, no study to
date has empirically investigated the relationship between caregiver type and the
likelihood of prison visitation between children and their incarcerated mothers and
fathers.
For reasons that will follow, mothers (during paternal incarceration) and
grandmothers (during maternal incarceration) are hypothesized to be the most likely to
take children to see their incarcerated parent rather than other caregivers, despite the
challenges in doing so. Other caregiver types (e.g., relatives, non-relatives, state
placements) differ significantly from mother and grandmother caregivers along a number
of dimensions including economic status, cultural beliefs and expectations surrounding
parenthood. Additional differences exist across caregiver types with respect to legal
restrictions set by courts that influence prison visitation (e.g., children in foster care)
5

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

(Arditti, 2012; Beckerman, 1989; Brown & Bloom, 2009; Kruttschnitt, 2011; Roy &
Dyson, 2005).
While mothers and grandmothers most often care for children during maternal
and paternal incarceration, their role as the most probable facilitator of prison visitation
between prisoners and their children is much more complex. Mothers and grandmothers
often maintain an unfettered belief in the value of a parent-child relationship, for the
child’s benefit (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Einat, Rabinovitz & Harel-Aviram,
2013; Fuller, 1993; Gleeson & Seryak, 2010), but also for their own reasons as they have
a vested interest in prisoners assuming parental roles upon release—above and beyond
that of other caregiver types (Brown & Bloom, 2009; Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Einat
et al., 2013; Roy & Dyson, 2005; Roy & Burton, 2007). The mothers and grandmothers
of prisoners’ children are rarely well situated. In fact, mothers and grandmothers are
arguably the most burdened of all child caregivers (Tuerk & Loper, 2006). Research has
documented the great burdens they carry with respect to material hardship, residential
instability, and caring for children with few resources to meet their growing needs
(Arditti & Few, 2006; Geller, Garfinkel & Western, 2011; Phillips, Erkanli, Keeler,
Costello & Angold, 2006; Tasca, Rodriguez & Zatz, 2011).
Even when a mother’s or father’s incarceration has had little impact on the current
status of the family—as many of these parents were absent from their children’s lives
prior to incarceration due to an inability or unwillingness to parent, substance abuse, or
mental health problems—mother and grandmother caregivers often view the
imprisonment period as a means to start anew (Brown & Bloom, 2009; Christian &
6

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Kennedy, 2011; Day, Acock, Bahr & Arditti, 2005; Einat et al., 2013). As gatekeepers,
these caregivers are in a unique position to make demands of the prisoner regarding their
future parental roles and responsibilities (Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Einat et al., 2013;
Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Roy & Dyson, 2005). In an effort to alleviate the burdens they
have been bearing on their own, prison visitation serves as the prime opportunity for
mothers and grandmothers to jumpstart the parent-child relationship and lay out a game
plan for how life is supposed to be upon the prisoner’s release (Arditti, 2012; Brown &
Bloom, 2009; Visher, 2013). The power that these caregivers hold as gatekeepers during
the prison period—often the only time they maintain such control over the prisoner—
coupled with grandmothers’ and mothers’ desire for change in their current
circumstances gives rise to “idealized expectations” surrounding parenthood (Comfort,
2008; Day et al. 2005; Einat et al., 2013; Roy & Dyson, 2005). The facilitation of parentchild prison visitation by mothers and grandmothers serves as the means by which this
process unfolds.
Prison Visitation and Child Responses
In addition to examining factors associated with the likelihood of parent-child
prison visitation, it is equally critical to gain insight into what prison visitation means for
child well-being. Parent-child separation as a result of imprisonment may generate
emotional and behavioral problems among children because it is often unanticipated,
disruptive and unexplained (Dallaire, 2007b; Poehlmann, 2005b). Prison visitation may
alleviate or exacerbate these challenges. The limited literature available, however, is
mixed in terms of whether visitation is beneficial or harmful for children. On one hand,
7

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

some studies indicate that children who visit their imprisoned parent have reduced
anxiety surrounding their parent’s absence, exhibit fewer problem behaviors and have
improved relationships with their parent (Block & Potthast, 1998; Nesmith & Ruhland,
2008; Poehlmann et al., 2010). By contrast, other studies have pointed out that visitation
can invoke negative emotional and behavioral responses in children given their exposure
to various stressors in order to maintain contact with an incarcerated parent, such as
commuting far distances, and having to come to terms with leaving their parent behind
once the visit has ended (Dallaire & Wilson, 2010; McDermott & King, 1992; Peart &
Asquith, 1992).
There are two primary theoretical perspectives that may account for the
contradictory findings of prior work on prison visitation and child well-being: attachment
theory and secondary prisonization. Attachment theory focuses on parent–child
interactions that contribute to children’s close relationships and well-being across the life
span (Boss, 1999; 2004; Bowlby, 1969; 1973; 1980; Harvey, 2002). It is often maintained
that parental incarceration is harmful for children due to the child’s separation from the
parent (Bowlby, 1973; Deck, 1988; Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Myers, Smarsh, AmlundHagen & Kennon, 1999; Poehlmann, 2005b). From an attachment standpoint, if a child
does not have sufficient contact with an attachment figure, the child may experience
emotional and developmental difficulties, hostility and withdrawal, and an inability to
maintain long-term interpersonal relationships (Bowlby, 1969; 1973; 1980; Deck, 1988;
Poehlmann, 2005b). Hence, from this perspective, prison visitation is a way to ease any

8

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

negative feelings surrounding parental absence during incarceration, thereby potentially
reducing negative emotional and behavioral responses among children.
Alternatively, the secondary prisonization perspective focuses on the way in
which the stressful institutional environment that family members are forced to navigate
in order to visit their incarcerated loved one is often degrading, intimidating and results in
family members’ defined as “quasi-inmates” (Arditti, 2012; Comfort, 2008; Hairston,
1998). Such treatment can invoke negative reactions among prison visitors—particularly
children. From a secondary prisonization perspective, parent-child prison visitation is
harmful for children given the harsh conditions of the correctional institution itself
(Arditti, 2003; Comfort, 2008; Dallaire, Wilson & Ciccone, 2009). Considered together,
it may be that prison visitation is positive for children in some ways, while negative in
others—hence, the “visitation paradox” (Arditti, 2012). Still, the “visitation paradox”
alone does not fully capture the nuances associated with how children who visit an
imprisoned parent are affected by the experience. In particular, prison visitation does not
occur in isolation from pre-incarceration stressors that might play a role in how children
respond. Additionally, the effects of visitation on children are likely “age-graded” in that
the age of the child might influence how he or she responds to visitation with an
incarcerated parent (Poehlmann et al., 2010). To that end, in order to fully tap into the
effects of visitation on children, it is necessary to consider “visitation paradox” factors,
pre-incarceration life circumstances and child age.

9

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Research Purpose and Significance
Guided by prior research, this dissertation investigates two main research
questions. First, I examine children’s connection to their incarcerated mothers and
fathers, focusing on the influence of caregiver type in the facilitation of parent-child
prison visitation. Given that I expect differences in caregiver type depending on which
parent is in prison, I examine these relationships separately for children experiencing
maternal and paternal incarceration. Specifically, I quantitatively address the following
questions:
Paternal Incarceration
1.

Are children experiencing paternal incarceration more likely to visit their father in
prison when the primary caregiver is a mother rather than a different caregiver,
net of relevant controls?

Maternal Incarceration
2.

Are children experiencing maternal incarceration more likely to visit their mother
in prison when the primary caregiver is a grandmother rather than a different
caregiver, net of relevant controls?

Second, I examine the behavioral and emotional responses of children who visit their
incarcerated mothers and fathers by qualitatively exploring the following questions:
3.

4.

5.

What role do “visitation paradox” factors (i.e., parental attachment, secondary
prisonization) play in how children respond emotionally and behaviorally to
prison visitation, as perceived by caregivers?
How do pre-incarceration life circumstances (e.g., stressors) influence children’s
emotional and behavioral responses to prison visitation with an incarcerated
parent, as perceived by caregivers?
How does age affect children’s responses to prison visits?
Understanding caregivers' facilitation of prison visitation and its impact on

children can shed light on the functioning of vulnerable families in the era of mass
10

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

incarceration. Visitation provides a window into which researchers can glimpse how
families remain connected and what such connections mean for children during what are
often lengthy periods of parental confinement.
Sadly, the mass incarceration movement in its efforts to get tough on crime, also
got tough on children and their caregivers—particularly mothers and grandmothers
(Lenox, 2011; Lynch, 2012; Phillips & Bloom, 1998). The punitive nature of
imprisonment extends beyond the actual prisoner to the family members themselves, and
as a result family connectedness becomes exceedingly difficult and potentially even
harmful for visitors, including children (Arditti, 2012; Christian, 2005; Swanson et al.,
2013). Prison visitation can become an overwhelming process for already taxed
caregivers and children. Given this, one could ask, why even bother with visitation? It is
contended here that mothers and grandmothers are the most likely caregivers to facilitate
father-child and mother-child visits despite the obstacles in doing so. Indeed, these
caregivers need the prisoner to fulfill their family responsibilities upon release as mothers
and grandmothers are often overwhelmed caring and providing for the children alone.
Subsequently, the visitation room becomes the only family "intervention"
available in a system that has closed the door on rehabilitation. Families are forced to
attempt to hit a “reset” button without the adequate tools or resources to overcome
ongoing familial stressors related to financial hardship, prisoner’s substance use, mental
health problems and repeated criminal justice involvement. The prison visitation room is
the setting by which this “reset” process can take place. At the same time, however, it is
important to note that such attempts to “reset” the past and maintain or reestablish

11

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

connections by caregivers during a parent’s imprisonment can have important
implications for children. Whether the consequences of such efforts are positive or
negative for children, however, is unclear from prior research.
For both research and policy purposes, we should care about who visits, the
taxing circumstances that are inherent in doing so and what visitation means for child
well-being. Such an understanding will allow us to paint a more complete picture of the
consequences of mass incarceration among complex family systems with multifaceted
needs. In particular, a focus on caregiver type in the examination of factors associated
with parent-child prison visitation can identify family systems to be targeted in reentry
initiatives. Since family support is a key component of successful reentry (Visher, 2013),
it is critical that individuals most entrenched with the prisoner during his or her
incarceration are included in the post-release transition plan. In consideration of the
burdens caregivers carry and the various expectations placed on prisoners upon release
(particularly with respect to parenthood), a family systems focus in reentry could enhance
family functioning. As a result, prisoners and their families may cope more successfully
with the realities of life after incarceration.
Moreover, my focus on the effects of prison visitation on children advances prior
work both empirically and theoretically. Specifically, no study to date has fully examined
the “visitation paradox” (Arditti, 2012), as the limited research on visitation effects for
children generally focuses on either attachment or secondary prisonization perspectives
but not both. This analysis takes the “visitation paradox” a step further by capturing prior
life circumstances and potential age-graded effects in assessing what visitation means for
12

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

children. From a policy perspective, tapping into children’s responses to visitation can
help to inform prison visitation policies and practices (e.g., video visitation) and
determine whether visits help or hurt children coping with parental incarceration. In
short, the current research speaks more broadly to the vulnerable family systems
experiencing incarceration, by assessing the ways in which they connect, and the
implications of such connections for the children left behind.

13

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Chapter 2
Theoretical Framework
In the following chapter, I highlight important theoretical contributions of the
collateral consequences of incarceration literature by situating my work within the
broader political and historical contexts of mass imprisonment. This is followed by a
discussion on the impact of tough-on-crime policies for prisoners, children and families.
Next, I outline the ways in which correctional institutional policies have paralleled the
larger “get tough” movement, thereby creating significant obstacles to parent-child
visitation. These two sections lay the theoretical groundwork for the crux of the
dissertation. Then, I discuss how despite the vulnerable status of families who experience
mass imprisonment, as well as the punitive nature of prison visitation policies, parentchild visitation will be dependent upon caregiver type; and the type of caregiver differs
by whether it is a mother or a father incarcerated.
Second, using attachment theory and secondary prisonization as frameworks, I
describe how prison visitation may be both beneficial and harmful for children in
consideration of Arditti’s (2012) notion of the prison “visitation paradox”. I take this one
step further by outlining why it is important to consider prior life circumstances and child
age in assessing how children respond to prison visitation. Finally, I summarize and
conclude this chapter by discussing the ways in which this research extends empirical and
theoretical inquiry into the broader consequences of mass incarceration for children and
families in terms of their abilities to remain intact through prison visitation, and how
children fare as a result.
14

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Political and Historical Context of Mass Imprisonment
In order to understand how and under what circumstances children remain
connected to an incarcerated parent through prison visitation and what prison visitation
means for child well-being, one must first trace how incarceration has infiltrated family
life through the rise of mass imprisonment. Historically, America has undergone several
philosophical shifts in its approach to punishment. While early approaches were rooted in
religion, the 20th century gave rise to the Progressive Era, which embraced a
rehabilitative ideology that centered on individualized intervention in the treatment of
offenders (Pratt, 2009). In an effort to achieve these goals, indeterminate sentencing
schemes provided broad discretionary power to judges to “individualize” sentencing of
offenders (Pratt, 2009; Provine, 2011; Tonry, 2011). In the late 1960s, however, dramatic
spikes in crime rates—particularly violence—coupled with the release of Martinson’s
(1974) bleak evaluation of the effectiveness of treatment interventions, led the public to
question whether rehabilitation really “works” (Cullen, 2007; Cullen & Gendreau, 2000;
Pratt, 2009; Walker, 2010).
At the same time, liberal and conservative policymakers alike began to rethink the
notion of indeterminate sentencing. Instead, they instituted a system of determinate/fixed
sentences and largely eliminated discretionary parole release (Lynch, 2012; Pratt, 2009).
Although both liberals and conservatives were in favor of these reforms, their support
was for vastly different reasons. For instance, liberals argued that the unfettered
discretion afforded to criminal justice officials led to “lawlessness” (Frankel, 1972) in
sentencing and resulted in discriminatory practices, particularly against poor minorities.
15

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Alternatively, conservatives viewed policies stemming from the rehabilitative philosophy
as too lenient or “soft” on crime. In the end, both sides agreed that the newly instituted
reforms would alleviate their criticisms (Cullen, 2007; Tonry, 2011). Little did the public
or policymakers realize that these policy changes would have unintended and profound
ramifications for children and families in the decades to come.
During this period, politicians recognized that it was to their benefit to campaign
on the public’s fear of crime and waning support for rehabilitation. Conservatives began
to openly dismiss the notion that crime could be rooted in structural factors, arguing
instead that crime was fueled by culture, especially black culture (Alexander, 2010;
Provine, 2011; Tonry, 2011). Although Nixon initiated the “war on drugs,” Reagan
gained public support to fully wage it through the use of implicitly racial terms like
“gangbangers,” “crack whores” and “welfare queens” to play into fear of minority crime
(Alexander, 2010).
At the time the war was initiated, fewer than two percent of Americans perceived
drugs to be a top national priority; however, by 1986, leading news outlets labeled “the
crack epidemic” to be the most important issue of the year (Alexander, 2010; Tonry,
2011). The political framing and media portrayal of the crack epidemic reinforced
widespread racial stereotypes which paved the way for a cascade of tough-on-crime
policies that produced racially disparate outcomes in every stage of the criminal justice
system (Beckett, Nyrop & Pfingst, 2006; Beckett, Nyrop, Pfingst & Bowen, 2005; Mann,
Zatz & Rodriguez, 2006). In turn, these policies produced unintended consequences for

16

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

the stability of families and the well-being of children among the most marginalized in
our society (Arditti, 2012; Wakefield & Uggen, 2010; Wildeman, 2014).
To ensure that the war on drugs would be enforced, the federal government
provided local, state and federal police departments with generous incentives (Lynch,
2012). Specifically, Congress passed the Military Cooperation with Law Enforcement
Act, which allowed for the use of military resources by police agencies for the purpose of
fighting drug crime (Alexander, 2010). Between 1980 and 1984, FBI drug enforcement
funding grew from $8 million to $95 million. And, the Reagan administration even
permitted police departments to retain a large portion of money and assets obtained
during drug enforcement operations (Alexander, 2010; Tonry, 2011). These large-scale
efforts had devastating impacts on family formation and stability in disadvantaged
neighborhoods. Indeed, drug enforcement in these areas removed countless numbers of
minorities—many of whom were parents—from community and family life (Clear, 2007;
Rose & Clear, 1998; Western, 2006).
Given the racial undertones in the political campaign for the war on drugs, it was
no surprise that the war was waged almost exclusively in marginalized minority
neighborhoods (Walker, Spohn & DeLone, 1999). As the influential work of Beckett and
colleagues (2005; 2006) in Seattle revealed, it is easier for police to target inner-city
minorities given the prevalence of publicly visible drug markets, whereas in white
communities drug transactions tend to take place indoors. In addition, Tonry (2011)
argues that police can more easily infiltrate social networks to make drug arrests in
disadvantaged areas than in cohesive, better-resourced white communities. Since police
17

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

focused their efforts on inner-city communities, inevitably this led to higher rates of
arrests and incarceration of minority residents for these crimes (Beckett et al., 2005;
2006). In fact, the enforcement of this war led to a threefold increase in the number of
drug-related arrests between 1970 and 2003—the largest contributor to the surge in
imprisonment rates (Walker, 2010).
Yet, arrest rates do not follow the same pattern as use rates (Alexander, 2010;
Tonry, 2011). Notably, there is no empirical support to suggest that law enforcement
crackdowns that are waged in inner-city neighborhoods (primarily against users and lowlevel sellers) have produced long-term reductions in the overall drug trade (Walker,
2010). What this strategy has produced, however, is racially disparate outcomes in the
likelihood of arrest and incarceration for drug offenses (Alexander, 2010; Beckett et al.,
2005; 2006). The drug war is a primary contributor to the deterioration of families among
the already vulnerable, as evidenced by the growing body of work that demonstrates the
harmful effects of parental imprisonment on children and families (Arditti, 2005; 2012;
Nurse, 2002; Poehlmann et al., 2010; Turney, 2014; Western & Muller, 2013).
To add to the problem, the tough-on-crime movement was waged at a time when
disadvantaged communities were in a period of deep social and structural change.
Wilson’s (1987) influential work, The Truly Disadvantaged, traces the way in which
inner-city communities were rocked by deindustrialization. Consequently, minority
residents were isolated from what jobs remained in the manufacturing sector given the
relocation of this industry to other parts of the city. Prior to the 1970s, inner-city residents
with little education and few job skills could obtain industrial positions in their
18

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

neighborhood; this was no longer the case. As revealed by Wilson (1987), the number of
employed non-white males per 100 women has steadily declined since 1960, particularly
among men under the age of 25. The drop in lawful employment prospects among
minorities trapped in the inner city amplified incentives to sell drugs—markedly crack
cocaine (Anderson, 2010; Tonry, 2011). Subsequently, minorities in these communities
became prime targets of law enforcement and tough-on-crime penalties. They
experienced imprisonment and its consequences at disproportionately higher rates than
whites, largely as a result of the policies that stemmed from the war on drugs (Lenox,
2011; Provine, 2011; Tonry, 2011; Walker, 2010; Wakefield & Uggen, 2010; Western,
2006). In consideration of what this means more broadly, it is clear that these factors can
wreck havoc on families’ abilities to remain intact and can affect the fates of prisoners’
children.
The shift away from rehabilitative ideals toward a more punitive punishment
philosophy coupled with the creation and enforcement of the war on drugs produced two
key crime control strategies that has implications for children and families: (1) mandatory
penalties and; (2) sentencing structure changes that displaced discretion from judges to
prosecutors (Kramer & Ulmer, 2009; McShane, 2008; Walker, 2010; Spohn & Fornango,
2009). Upon the signing of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 into law by President
Reagan, a series of harsh penalties and legislation went into effect with the purpose of
increasing prison sentences and eliminating discretionary release (McShane, 2008). The
newly implemented tough-on-crime mandates included three-strikes laws, truth-insentencing statutes and lengthy mandatory sentences, most notably for drug offenses
19

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

(Clear, 2007; Stolzenberg and D’Alessio, 1997; Zimring, 2005). Unfortunately, the strict
and lengthy prison terms set by these policies—which predominately affected minority
drug offenders—had little regard for the ramifications they posed for the functioning,
stability and well-being of the children and families left behind.
Scholars have claimed that the media and political campaigns to sensationalize
drugs as an “inner-city” problem shaped how criminal justice actors enforced the law
(Beckett et al., 2005; 2005; Davis, 2005; Simon, 2009). Under the new sentencing
system, discretion was shifted from judges at sentencing to prosecutors at charging and
plea bargaining. This, in essence, made decision-making hidden from public scrutiny and
more open to the possibility of discrimination (Albonetti, 1997; Kramer & Ulmer, 2009).
The sentencing literature overwhelmingly suggests that young, unemployed,
Black and Latino males are punished more harshly than white offenders, particularly for
drug crimes (Kramer & Ulmer, 2009; Provine, 2007; 2011; Spohn & Fornango, 2009;
Spohn & Spears, 2000). Specifically, racial and ethnic minorities have a greater risk of
prosecution whereas whites are often filtered out of the system or never reach the system
at all (Alexander, 2010; Tonry, 2011; Walker, 2010). Once charged with a drug offense,
Black and Latino males are the least likely to receive downward departures under federal
sentencing guidelines (Spohn & Fornango, 2009), and are more likely to be sentenced to
prison and to receive lengthier imprisonment terms (Kramer & Ulmer, 2009; Spohn &
Spears, 2000). These realities inherent in the criminal justice system undermine family
connectedness, particularly among poor, racial minorities.

20

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Since the 1980s, the crime control policies used to wage the war on drugs have
produced a sevenfold increase in the prison population (McShane, 2008; Western, 2006).
Not only has the number of prisoners skyrocketed, prison terms have greatly increased as
well (McShane, 2008; Lynch, 2012). Sentences for drug crimes are the leading cause of
the spike in the prison population (Tonry, 2011). Despite the popularity of mandatory
penalties such as three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentences, and truth-in-sentencing,
there is little evidence to suggest that these approaches have any appreciable effect on
crime; rather they are largely symbolic (Pratt, 2009; Simon, 2009; Walker, 2010;
Zimring, 2005). What has been empirically demonstrated, however, is that when large
numbers of young minorities are cycled in and out of already disadvantaged communities
as a result of mass incarceration, there are profound implications for family stability,
economic well-being and ultimately crime (Clear, 2007; Nurse, 2002; Pratt, 2009).
To complicate matters further, it is important to take note of the complex set of
challenges that prisoners face. The majority of prisoners are poor, uneducated, racial and
ethnic minority mothers and fathers who suffer from a plethora of unmet needs (Dodge &
Pogrebin, 2001; Greene, Haney & Hurtado, 2000; Murray & Farrington, 2006; 2008a;
Phillips et al., 2006; Stacer; 2012; Visher, 2013; Wildeman, 2014). Substance abuse and
mental health problems are rampant among the prison population. Arditti and Few (2006)
refer to the conditions of addiction, mental illness and victimization suffered by a high
number of female inmates as the “triple threat.” Of course, male prisoners also
experience these stressors at concerning rates, but an accumulation of these risks are
experienced more often by women than men. Despite the calls for policymakers to treat
21

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

these conditions as a public health concern, mass imprisonment has been employed as the
chief policy response to these social problems (Arditti, 2005; Lynch, 2012).
Other research in this area—primarily focused on men—describes an additional
consequence felt by prisoners: felony and parental disenfranchisement post-release
(Alexander, 2010; LaVigne, Naser, Brooks & Castro, 2005; Manza & Uggen, 2006;
Petersilia, 2003). For instance, in many states, individuals with a felony record are unable
to vote, are disqualified from various forms of employment, are excluded from serving on
juries and even restricted from obtaining a driver’s license (Manza & Uggen, 2006;
Walker, 2010). Some states have also implemented policies that define incarceration as a
form of parental abandonment resulting in the limitation or termination of parental rights
of prisoners with children (Beckerman, 1989; Kruttschnitt, 2011; Lynch, 2012). In
essence, for prisoners, completing a sentence is not the end of punishment but rather the
beginning of long-lasting and even permanent disenfranchisement from American
society, while struggling with various needs that are rarely addressed (Manza & Uggen,
2006).
Although a large body of work has focused on the barriers former prisoners face,
an equally important line of inquiry centers on the life stressors and unmet needs of the
children and caregivers left behind during maternal and paternal imprisonment (Bor,
McGee & Fagan, 2004; Cho, 2009; Dallaire, 2007a; Geller et al., 2009; Geller et al.,
2011; Murray and Farrington, 2005; 2006; 2008a; 2008b; Tasca et al., 2014). Studies
show that children of incarcerated parents experience a myriad of negative outcomes,
including mental health difficulties, substance abuse, problems in school, aggression and
22

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

delinquency (Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Phillips, Burns, Wagner, Kramer & Robbins,
2002; Phillips et al. 2006; Rodriguez, Smith & Zatz, 2009; Tasca et al. 2011; Wakefield
& Wildeman, 2011; Wildeman, 2009; 2010). Other studies have documented the
financial hardships, residential mobility, and familial instability experienced by
prisoners’ families (Geller et al., 2011; Turanovic et al., 2012; Wildeman, 2014).
Resources may be limited for non-parent caregivers (i.e. grandmothers) as the legal and
institutional hurdles to receiving assistance for non-biological children are often part of a
complicated and lengthy process (Kruttschnitt, 2011).
In light of the various needs of prisoners, children and caregivers, before and
during incarceration, coupled with the challenges that lie ahead upon release, it becomes
clear that achieving a healthy degree of family functioning and connectedness is far from
an easy task (Mowen & Visher, 2013; Visher, 2013). Prisoners, their children, and
remaining caregivers are in need of interventions on a variety of fronts, yet the shift away
from rehabilitation toward a “lock ‘em up” approach means families are largely on their
own to address these problems. Prison visitation becomes the setting by which families
attempt to heal as it is the one place where the prisoner is sober and reliably available and
attentive (Arditti, 2012; Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Comfort, 2008; Swanson et al.,
2013). Many would contend that a prison visitation room is hardly an ideal setting to
build or repair parent-child relationships, but the prevalence of incarceration among the
most vulnerable, sadly, leaves few other options for these families.
As this body of work has matured over time, scholarship has begun to tackle the
notion that imprisonment alone may not be the only contributor to the problems
23

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

experienced by these vulnerable children and families. Early theoretical work in this area
suggested that imprisonment may exacerbate existing problems (Hagan & Dinovitzer,
1999). To complicate matters further, recent research reveals that parental imprisonment
may even be positive for some children and caregivers, who describe the confinement
period as a reprieve from a drug-addicted and neglectful parent who was burdensome to
the family (Giordano, 2010; Turanovic et al., 2012). As such, it is important for research
on the status of families during imprisonment and on child well-being to consider life
circumstances and stressors that occur before a parent’s incarceration, and the reasons for
those changes (Johnston, 2006; Phillips et al., 2006; Turanovic et al., 2012).
When parents suffer from addiction, lack an education, and reside in
impoverished communities, remaining connected during incarceration and achieving
positive child outcomes may be difficult. Although mothers are usually the primary
caregivers for their children, a national survey of prisoners found that only 64 percent of
mothers were living with their children in the month prior to their arrest (Glaze &
Maruschak, 2008), meaning that one-third of the children experienced maternal absence
prior to their mother’s incarceration. Prior research has rarely examined the extent of
parental involvement and stressors in the lives of families prior to parental incarceration,
even though these hardships may be common and part of larger structural problems faced
by vulnerable families most affected by crime and imprisonment in America.
The heavy reliance on imprisonment as part of the “get tough” movement was
intended to target its wrath on offenders alone—particularly drug offenders—but ended
up reaching children and families in unintentional yet consequential ways (Lenox, 2011;
24

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Lynch, 2012; Provine, 2011). Research has made great strides in understanding the
complexity of imprisonment in the lives of children and families. Indeed, studies have
demonstrated that incarceration may not always cause adverse child and family
outcomes, but rather increase their likelihood by aggravating hardships already present in
these families’ lives.
Despite these important advancements, we still know relatively little about
familial ties (i.e. children, caregivers, prisoners) during maternal and paternal
imprisonment and what such ties mean for children (Swanson et al., 2013; Turney, 2014).
As will be discussed in the following section, maintaining connections to prisoners is an
arduous undertaking. Yet, some children and caregivers do it and others do not. Why this
is the case remains an open question and what this means for child well-being is not well
understood. Tapping into these questions is an important extension to the study of mass
imprisonment policies as these questions speak to the stability of family systems and the
well-being of the most vulnerable among us.
Parallels between Prison Visitation and the Tough on Crime Movement
The tough-on-crime movement has extended beyond law enforcement and the
courts to the policies and practices inside correctional institutions. One way to map out
how prison visitation policies have become increasingly punitive is to examine the
decisions handed down by the courts over time (Beckerman, 1989; Tewksbury &
DeMichele, 2005). Prior to the 1960s, the courts maintained the position that while
imprisonment resulted in the loss of certain liberties and rights, courts should not
interfere in matters of prison rules and regulations concerning visitation. In essence, the
25

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

courts initially upheld a “hands off’ policy when it came to prison visits (Coffin v.
Reichard, 1945; Price v. Johnston, 1948). The justification for this approach was the
belief that courts lacked expertise in penology, and that judicial interference might
undermine prison order (Golub v. Krimsky, 1960). This hands-off stance, however, began
to falter as the courts later acknowledged that some deprivations were a consequence of
“capricious and arbitrary decisions” (Jackson v. Godwin, 1968). The courts later held that
state inmates were protected under the federal Civil Rights Act, and that the federal
courts could consider prisoners’ claims of constitutional rights violations (Cooper v.
Pate, 1964). The courts subsequently ruled that prisoners have a constitutional right to
visitation which cannot be restricted as a form of punishment (Agron v. Montanyne,
1975; Cooper v. Morin, 1979). Together, these early rulings suggest a high regard for the
protection of prisoner rights in which prison visitation is an integral part. This would
change beginning in the 1980s, however, as philosophies surrounding incarceration began
to harden.
Prison administrators began to feel pressure to alter existing correctional
policies—including visitation—that were viewed as “being soft on crime or as rewarding
inmates for their law violations” (Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005, p. 293). For instance,
the public perceived prisoners’ receipt of educational and recreational programs, access
to free medical services, and even the opportunity to visit with family members as
“luxuries” that inmates did not deserve (Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005). Correctional
personnel were faced with a dilemma. On one hand, prison administrators were very
much aware of public demands for “no frills” prison policies. At the same time, however,
26

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

they also knew that programming and visitation opportunities had positive impacts on
institutional order (Casey-Acevedo, Bakken & Karle, 2004; Cochran, 2012; Duwe &
Clark, 2013; Jiang & Winfree, 2006). Given mounting public pressure, correctional
institutions began to implement a series of policy changes. For instance, prisoner
programming opportunities were dramatically reduced and institutional “perks” such as
weights, college courses, and commissary items were frequently eliminated (Toch, 2001;
2007).
In addition to changes to prisoner-specific policies, visitation rules and practices
also began to mirror the broader punitive philosophy surrounding incarceration.
Specifically, prisons began to curb the “quality” of visits by instituting rules against
hugging, kissing and other interpersonal contact between prisoners, their children and
other family members. Moreover, prisons implemented stricter regulations related to
visitor dress code, visiting times and the availability of child-friendly items and activities
in visiting rooms (e.g., games, books) (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Christian, 2005;
Day et al., 2005; Swanson et al., 2013).
Other policies included cost-prohibitive phone charges, often more than $1 per
minute and increases in nonlocal incarceration (Arditti, 2012; Travis, 2005). It is
common for prisoners to be housed hundreds of miles from their homes, children, and
families who often have limited transportation options (Poehlmann et al., 2010). This is
especially true during maternal incarceration, as there are fewer women’s prisons than
men’s. As such, family members of female inmates must often commute longer distances
than those of their male counterparts (Fuller, 1993; Huebner & Gustafson, 2007). Nurse
27

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

(2002) claims that strict correctional policies have been crafted to produce “deep breaks”
from children, partners and families as a means to toughen the community response to
crime.
What is more, correctional facilities began to rely on “non-contact” visitation
more often as a disciplinary tool or for prisoners classified as “high institutional risk”
(i.e., prison gang members) (Toch, 2001; 2007). The issue of restricted visitation through
“non-contact” visits was raised in the 2003 U.S. Supreme Court case Overton v. Bazzetta.
Unlike in earlier decisions, the Court took a hardening stance on prison contact by ruling
that contact visits can be restricted under certain circumstances. The Court concluded
that “visitation alternatives need not be ideal, only available” (Overton v. Bazzetta, 2003).
More recently, several states have considered charging family members fees to
visit their incarcerated loved ones. In 2011, the Arizona Department of Corrections
(ADC) enacted such a policy, which requires all approved visitors to pay a one-time fee
of $25 in order to visit a prisoner. ADC personnel maintain that this policy lessens the
financial burden on taxpayers for rising prison costs. Specifically, prison officials state
that this fee will be used to cover background checks of visitor applicants, prison
maintenance and repairs, and that such a policy ensures prison “safety” (Arizona
Department of Corrections, 2011). Critics of this policy contend that this is an unfair and
particularly harsh tax placed on already financially strapped families attempting to
maintain familial connections to prisoners. Considered together, these increasingly
punitive correctional policies raise serious concerns for the ways in which the mass

28

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

imprisonment era impacts families—particularly children—in maintaining a meaningful
connection to an imprisoned mother or father.
The “Gatekeepers”: The Power of Caregiver Type
Despite the high level of scholarly and policy attention paid to the consequences
of incarceration for prisoners, children and families, limited empirical inquiry has been
undertaken on the in-prison connections between children and their incarcerated mothers
and fathers (Branch & Brinson, 2007; Turney, 2014). This is surprising when considering
that nearly half of all imprisoned parents do not receive visits from their children (Glaze
& Maruschak, 2008). Young and Smith (2000) maintain that since correctional policies
have adopted a “just desserts” approach in dealing with offenders, the impact of these
constraints on families’ abilities to remain connected must be recognized. Still, even with
the various structural and institutional-level barriers that make prison visitation difficult
for children to visit their incarcerated mother or father, some children do visit. What
factors account for this? I argue that caregiver type is the key predictor of whether or not
children visit their imprisoned parent.
In their research with male prisoners and their romantic partners, Day and
colleagues (2005) documented the complexities inherent in prisoner relationships. They
found that prisoners would express contradictory feelings toward their partners, feelings
that the authors describe as ambivalence. For instance, prisoners stated that they both
“loved and hated” their partners (Day et al., 2005). Other studies reveal a similar theme
of ambivalence regarding family members’ rationale for visiting in light of the various
challenges inherent in the process. Specifically, Christian (2005) found that many family
29

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

members expressed an attitude of “I don’t like it, but I do it anyway” when discussing
visitation with male prisoners. Likewise, in her study of jail visitation among women
inmates, Arditti (2003) discovered that more than half of the visitors in her sample
admitted that they often did not want to go to the jail, yet the majority of participants
were visiting regularly. And, Fuller’s (1993) study of visitors in a women’s correctional
facility in California found that while half of the sample described numerous obstacles in
visiting their loved one, visiting was such a priority for this group that they were willing
to make the necessary sacrifices in order to do so.
Although family members acknowledge the financial, physical and emotional
challenges in visiting inmates, for some families, the will to remain connected trumps all
else (Swanson et al., 2013). Still, these studies shed little light on parent-child visitation,
and they do not include participants with a family member in prison who do not visit. In
addition, prior studies do not consistently capture measures of barriers to visitation or
prior life stressors that can influence whether or not a family member visits (e.g.,
distance, economic status, addiction). While prior work does illustrate the complexities
surrounding prison visitation, there remains a void in the literature regarding why only
some children visit their imprisoned mothers and fathers.
The majority of children of prisoners express a desire to visit their incarcerated
parent, yet children cannot visit alone (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Hence, the gatekeeper
maintains power over whether or not a child visits his or her mother or father in prison
(Murray, Farrington & Sekol, 2012; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). The dynamics of
caregiver gatekeeping by members of prisoners’ kinship networks during imprisonment
30

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

are poorly understood, despite their critical importance (Cecil et al., 2008; Turney &
Wildeman, 2013). According to Roy and Dyson (2005), caregiver gatekeeping is more
than caregivers’ values or beliefs about parental involvement. It is an “active process of
negotiating overlapping role expectations as partners and parents” (p.305). The authors
contend that the process of gatekeeping over negotiated roles requires an active response
from the parent. Given the parent’s incarcerated status, prison visitation serves as a
means to obtain such an active response (Roy & Dyson, 2005).
In essence, caregivers are in a pivotal position to facilitate a connection between
prisoner and child, or prohibit it. In turn, the children are reliant on the caregiver to
nurture or impede that relationship (Swanson et al., 2013; Turney & Wildeman, 2013). In
some situations, restricting parent-child contact all together may be a wise choice if the
child is in need of protection from harmful behavior exhibited by the parent prior to
imprisonment (Giordano, 2010; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008). Even in these cases,
however, the decision of caregivers to cut off contact between child and prisoner may not
be so straightforward. For instance, some caregivers view incarceration as a period to
rebuild relationships between children and prisoners that were tainted by preincarceration hardships. In these cases, caregivers provide an opportunity for the prisoner
to make things “right” with the child (Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Day et al., 2005; Einat
et al., 2013; Nurse, 2002). Although all types of caregivers have been reported to value
prison contact among children and parents, the complex nature of mother and
grandparent caregiver relationships with the child’s incarcerated parent make these

31

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

caregivers the most likely to facilitate parent-child prison contact—net of prior stressors
and institutional barriers (Day et al., 2005; Fuller, 1993).
Given that differences exist in the facilitation of parent-child visitation depending
upon the gender of the incarcerated parent, I differentiate between maternal and paternal
incarceration in the next sections.
Maternal incarceration. When mothers go to prison, the majority of children are
cared for by grandmothers (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Yet, it is important to illustrate
that while the majority of mothers were the sole caregivers of children prior to
incarceration, many grandparents assumed the role as caregiver well before any period of
maternal confinement. According to the latest Bureau of Justice Statistics estimate, nearly
one-third of children were not living with their mothers prior to her incarceration (Glaze
& Maruschak, 2008). Given the high prevalence of substance abuse, mental illness and
victimization histories of incarcerated women—referred to as the “triple threat”—many
of these women were unable to care for their children before any criminal justice system
involvement (Arditti & Few, 2006; Owen, 1998).
As discussed earlier, grandmothers have often been the consistent caretakers of
their grandchildren throughout their lives. In particular, research on African American
women and their families indicates that multi-generational extended family systems are
quite common in child-rearing (Cecil et al., 2008; Hanlon, Carswell & Rose, 2007). The
assumption of caregiving responsibilities by grandmothers in difficult times is a
necessary aspect of the kinship care experience exhibited by black families that is best
represented by the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child” (Hanlon et al., 2007). This

32

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

phenomenon reflects the reliance on extended kinship networks—particularly
grandmothers—among poor, disadvantaged parents who are the most often targets of
mass imprisonment policies (Hanlon et al., 2007; Stacer, 2012).
Despite their consistent involvement in children’s lives, grandmothers are unique
in their vested interest in mother-child relationships. As such, they are expected to be the
most likely facilitators of mother-child prison visitation. The dedication of grandparents
to bring children to visit their incarcerated mothers—who are most often their own
daughters—is demonstrated by Fuller’s (1993) study. Although obstacles were cited by
48 percent of the sample, visiting was such a priority that sacrifices were consistently
made by this group of mostly grandparents. In fact, 82 percent of these visitors reported
regular monthly visits (Fuller, 1993). The reasons underlying this dedication to motherchild prison visitation are rooted in their power as gatekeepers and in their “idealized
expectations” of their daughters as mothers (Arditti, 2012; Day et al., 2005; Nurse, 2002).
Grandmothers want their role as caregiver to be temporary, as these grandparents
are rarely well-situated and are typically overwhelmed (Hanlon et al., 2007; Turanovic et
al., 2012). The majority of grandparent caregivers are, on average, in their fifties,
unmarried minority women caring for their daughters’ children. While often employed,
they tend to work at low-wage jobs and are recipients of some form of public assistance
(Denby, 2012). Understandably, these aging and overly stressed grandmothers maintain a
heavy burden in caring for their grandchildren financially, physically and emotionally
(Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Sharp & Marcus-Mendoza, 2001; Turanovic et al., 2012).
Research by Mackintosh and colleagues (2006) revealed that nearly one-third of
33

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

grandmother caregivers had stress levels in the 90th percentile of national norms.
Grandmothers want their grandchildren to have a relationship with their mother
and believe that the incarceration term serves as a period for their daughters to reflect
upon the past and restart their lives as mothers to their children. Scholars have described
this phenomenon as “idealized expectations” (Day et al., 2005) in that these caregivers
hold futuristic views of these prisoners as fitting the mold of the stereotypical, socially
acceptable mother even though such grandiose expectations are unlikely to be met
(Arditti, 2012; Brown & Bloom, 2009; Nurse, 2002). When mothers are in prison, the
grandmother—as the gatekeeper between mother and child—is in the powerful position
to lay out her expectations of the prisoner as a mother and daughter.
Incarcerated women often have strained relationships with their children’s
caregivers, as grandmothers frequently have unresolved issues with the imprisoned
mothers due to their inconsistent parenting, substance abuse, mental health issues and
prior criminal justice involvement (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Cecil et al, 2008;
Dodge & Pogrebin, 2001; Turanovic et al., 2012). The incarceration may be the only time
that the mother is sober, available and attentive. These grandmothers, who are stressed by
their added burdens, may express hostility toward the prisoner as the prison provides a
safe environment to do so (Brown & Bloom, 2009; Cecil et al., 2008). Brown and Bloom
(2009) showed how grandparents, understandably frustrated over their situations, would
use prison visits as a means to berate the women over their children’s problems and the
burdens of caregiving. Indeed, the unleashing of anger at incarcerated mothers by these
caregivers was found to be a typical experience during maternal imprisonment and
34

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

reinforced the burden these caregivers endured. At the same time, grandmothers have a
vested interest in resolving differences between themselves and the prisoner in hopes of
paving the way for maternal parental involvement post-release. These “idealized
expectations” could be a driving force behind grandmothers’ greater willingness to
facilitate visits between children and their imprisoned mothers than other types of
caregivers, and net of economic and institutional barriers.
The desire for their caregiving responsibilities to be temporary is further
illustrated by research that shows that a large portion of grandmothers are reluctant to
assume legal guardianship of their grandchildren, despite their length of time in this role
and the additional financial assistance that could be obtained by doing so (Denby, 2012;
Hanlon et al., 2007). Grandmothers often hold guilt over their daughters’ imprisonment
as they may feel to blame for the problems that led up to their criminal justice system
involvement (Hanlon et al., 2007). Accordingly, grandmothers often oppose legal custody
or guardianship because doing so might be viewed as “an indictment against the mother
and a proclamation of her parental unfitness and that this would be damaging and
disruptive to family relationships” (Denby, 2012, p. 123). Moreover, undergoing the
legal process of guardianship and custody is an expensive, time-consuming and
emotionally exhaustive endeavor that many grandmothers are unwilling to take on.
Although the financial resources that would be made available in obtaining formal
guardianship (e.g., public assistance receipt for the children) may be desperately needed,
the potential costs to family relationships are often viewed as too high by these caregivers
(Hanlon et al., 2007). Other studies show how grandparents are motivated by keeping the
35

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

family together and that despite the substantial financial burdens in visiting, maintaining
or rebuilding mother-child relationships are highly valued by this group of caretakers
(Fuller, 1993; Gleeson, Wesley, Ellis, Seryak, Talley & Robinson, 2009; Gleeson &
Seryak, 2010).
Of course, some children of incarcerated mothers are cared for by caregivers other
than grandmothers. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report, nearly one-third of
children with a mother in prison reside with their father and approximately 12 percent are
in foster placements (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). As supported by prior research, it is
argued here that children with caregivers other than grandparents are less likely to visit
their incarcerated mothers in prison. For instance, visitors of women prisoners who bring
children to visit are rarely fathers. In fact, Fuller (1993) found that nearly all child visitors
were brought by their grandmothers, whereas only 11 percent of children were brought
by fathers. When women prisoners were found to receive visits from men, most were
“friends” and had no contact, relation or involvement with the children (Fuller, 1993).
The notion that fathers are unlikely to facilitate prison contact during maternal
imprisonment is not surprising considering that a large portion of incarcerated mothers
report having a poor or non-existent relationship with the father of their children (Arditti
& Few, 2006). Gilham (2012) documents that prior to fathers’ being willing to bring a
child to visit an incarcerated mother, these women needed to prove that they were ready
to be a “fit” parent.
The lack of involvement among father caregivers in the facilitation of motherchild prison visitation may partly stem from these women’s violation of the “good
36

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

mother” role. As Arditti (2012) explains, societal assumptions surrounding mothering
depict women as self-sacrificing, benevolent and pure. Fitting the persona of the “crack
mom” is in direct violation of the “good mother” role that women are required to play.
These stereotypes of motherhood—often linked to race and class—permeate all levels of
American society (Zatz, 2000). At the macro level, the failure of women to live up to
their role as “good mothers” may account for the spikes in female imprisonment rates
given attributions of blameworthiness assigned to women offenders (Zatz, 2000). At the
individual level, courts and legislatures have assumed incarcerated mothers to be unfit
parents, who can be considered to have abandoned their children (Lenox, 2011).
Kruttschnitt (2011) describes how the passage of the Adoption and Safe Families
Act (ASFA) requires states to initiate the termination of parental rights of parents whose
children are in foster care for at least 15 months of the preceding two years. Since
children of prisoners in foster placements tend to have an incarcerated mother, this law
has significantly restricted the number of foster children who can visit their mother in
prison (Beckerman, 1989; Kruttschnitt, 2011). Thus, ideologies pertaining to “good
mothering” may be an explanation for the lower probability of mother-child prison
visitation facilitated by non-grandparent caregivers. Grandmothers are not immune from
such societal values; yet, they have a vested interest in maintaining mother-child
connections via prison visitation given their own set of needs and the fact that these
mothers are, after all, most often their daughters.
To reiterate, given grandmothers’ desire for their caregiving role to be temporary
and their hope that their daughters will assume their parenting responsibilities upon
37

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

release, these caregivers use their power as gatekeepers to initiate mother-child visitation
and demand that their expectations of these mothers be met in the future (Gleeson &
Seryak, 2010; Hanlon et al., 2007). Although their expectations are undoubtedly
“idealized” in light of these women’s histories and in the absence of treatment, prison
visitation serves as the only viable option these grandmothers have in keeping the family
together—which is a vital need for these tapped caregivers.
Paternal incarceration. The majority of children remain in the care of their
mothers during paternal incarceration (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). In light of this, a large
body of work has emerged that suggests that when a father is incarcerated, remaining
single mothers and their children are faced with substantial hardships as a result of the
father’s absence (Geller et al., 2009; Geller et al., 2011; Wakefield & Wildeman, 2011;
Schwartz-Soicher, Geller & Garfinkel, 2011; Turney & Wildeman, 2013; Wildeman,
2014). These studies make implicit assumptions that these men were the financial
providers for the family and the loss of his support can lead to economic and residential
instability for the family (Geller et al., 2011; Schwartz-Soicher et al. 2011; Wildeman,
2014).
Other research, however, paints a much more nuanced and complicated picture of
the status of vulnerable families who experience paternal imprisonment (Arditti, 2012;
Day et al., 2005; Roy & Dyson, 2005; Turanovic et al., 2012). In disadvantaged
communities where incarceration is commonplace, men who are available and
consistently present fathers are a rarity (Clear, 2007; Edin & Nelson, 2013; Roy &
Burton, 2007). Yet, the women in these communities maintain expectations that their
38

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

children’s fathers will assume traditional fathering roles (Edin & Nelson, 2013; Roy &
Dyson, 2005). Unfortunately, such expectations often go unmet as many of these men fail
to meet the fathering demands placed upon them by their children’s mothers. Prior to
incarceration, these fathers often have limited involvement with their children. Many
fathers financially contribute to their children by purchasing diapers and toys, but their
assistance is largely informal and sporadic (Edin & Nelson, 2013; Roy & Burton, 2007;
Roy & Dyson, 2005). Moreover, many of these fathers have children with multiple
women, which further complicate their involvement and relationships with their children
and their children’s mothers (Day et al., 2005; Edin & Nelson, 2013; Roy & Dyson,
2005).
A plethora of studies have documented the breakdown of families in inner cities
in America and how the rise of mass imprisonment has led to the absence of men as
stable partners and fathers (Clear, 2007; Edin & Nelson, 2013; Travis, 2005; Travis &
Waul, 2003; Western & Muller, 2013). This becomes glaringly evident in research that
examines the relationships between incarcerated fathers, their children and their mother
caregivers, and has important implications for prison visitation between these men and
their children. Once a father is incarcerated, however, the power dynamics between the
child’s mother and father shift (Roy & Dyson, 2005; Swanson et al., 2013). Men desire
relationships with their children and at the same time desire financial assistance from
these women while in prison (Arditti, 2012; Comfort, 2008; Jiang & Winfree, 2006). This
places the children’s mothers in the position of gatekeeper in which she has the power to
negotiate her demands (Swanson et al., 2013). In exchange for economic and social
39

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

support while in prison, these women can initiate a relationship between their children
and their children’s father through visitation while laying out expectations for fatherhood
post-release (Cecil et al., 2008; Comfort, 2008; Day et al., 2005; Roy & Dyson, 2005).
Although the majority of studies of maternal gatekeeping center on divorce and shared
child custody arrangements, Roy and Dyson (2005) found that during paternal
incarceration, mothers can exercise control to open the door for paternal involvement
through prison visitation.
Arditti (2012) describes how mothers, in their role as gatekeepers, may shape
men’s fathering identities and ultimately their involvement with their children. In their
study of incarcerated fathers, Day and colleagues (2005) found that the majority of these
men viewed themselves as good fathers and also as fairly involved in the lives of their
children, despite their imprisonment. And, in interviews with children during paternal
incarceration, Nesmith and Ruhland (2008) described how children looked forward to
their visits as they missed their father, even though many never had a relationship with
him prior to imprisonment. These findings are inconsistent with the notion of
“traditional” parenting relationships. Instead, this research highlights the deterioration of
family systems among those who experience mass incarceration, in which the prison
period itself provides the opportunity for fathering during prison visitation with children.
A key dimension of gatekeeping is expectations of change (Edin & Nelson, 2013).
Much like with grandmother caregivers during maternal imprisonment, mother caregivers
also often hold “idealized expectations” of these men as fathers, and/or as partners during
incarceration (Day et al., 2005). Taking children to visit their incarcerated fathers
40

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

provides these women an opportunity to create a sense of ‘family’ and ‘home,’ thereby
reinforcing these “idealized expectations” (Comfort, 2008; Day et al., 2005; Roy &
Dyson, 2005). Moreover, many of these women maintain a belief that imprisonment will
address these men’s needs related to unemployment, addiction, violence and parenting
(Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Comfort, 2008; Einat et al., 2013; Mowen & Visher, 2013).
Prior work reveals how both incarcerated fathers and their children’s mothers develop a
sense of empathy with each others’ challenges during confinement and that this empathy
was also vital to the facilitation of prison visitation with the children (Einat et al., 2013;
Roy & Dyson, 2005).
In her work on visitation between incarcerated men and their romantic partners,
Comfort (2008) describes how many women have been repeatedly disappointed by these
men on the outside, but during incarceration, they can be relied upon to be available and
attentive partners and fathers. In exchange, these women provide monetary and social
support to these prisoners. Research has shown that incarcerated men receive the majority
of their financial support in prison from partners (Jiang & Winfree, 2006). Women
frequently attempt to minimize the hardships associated with prison life for these men by
sending food and hygiene packages and money orders on a routine basis in addition to
regularly visiting (Comfort, 2008). In turn, these mothers end up sustaining the prisoner’s
upkeep rather than vice versa (Hairston, 2003).
In an effort to establish paternal involvement and create a sense of family, many
of these women endure great hardships. For instance, Harman and colleagues (2007)
found that whereas some women expressed satisfaction with the new parenting
41

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

arrangement, the majority of mothers experienced alarmingly high levels of stress due to
financial struggles. In addition to economic difficulties, many mother caregivers
experience parenting strain, conflicts between work and family responsibilities and
concerns over the well-being of their children (Arditti, 2003; Arditti et al., 2005).
Although the vast majority of children of incarcerated fathers are in the care of
their mothers, some children reside with other caregivers (e.g., grandparents, other
relatives, foster placement) (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). It is posited here that children in
these other care arrangements are less likely to visit their incarcerated fathers as these
caregivers have less of a vested interest than mothers, or are simply unable to do so (as in
the case of foster placement). For children in the care of a non-parent caregiver, it can be
argued that efforts to facilitate parental involvement will be focused first on the mother as
opposed to the father in light of the “good mother” roles that women are expected to play
(Arditti, 2012; Zatz, 2000).
As discussed previously, enduring the financial and physical costs of prison
visitation with fathers is not likely to be a primary concern for caregivers attempting to
get mothers to assume her mothering duties. The same case can be made for children of
incarcerated fathers in the foster care system. Child welfare systems are largely womenoriented such that the responsibility of parenting falls on the shoulders of the mothers
(Lenox, 2011; Kruttschnitt, 2011; Swann & Sylvester, 2006). Given the high prevalence
of non-involved fathers in the lives of children, father-child prison visiting is unlikely a
priority for non-mother caregivers.

42

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

In short, these theoretical explanations provide the backdrop as to why children
with mother caregivers are expected to be the most likely to visit a father in prison in
spite of the obstacles posed by the visitation process itself. When these fathers are
incarcerated, mothers gain power to make demands of the prisoner as partners and fathers
through their gatekeeping role (Day et al., 2005; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Roy &
Dyson, 2005; Turney & Wildeman, 2013). In exchange for monetary and social support
while incarcerated, these fathers are able to nurture a relationship with their children
through prison visitation—often for the first time (Roy & Dyson, 2005). Mothers are able
to secure a sense of family during these visits, which reinforces often unrealistic
expectations of these men as fathers (Arditti, 2012; Comfort, 2008). In light of family
instability among those impacted by incarceration, father-child prison visitation is one
way in which families can attempt to remain intact.
In summary, although a number of studies exist on the relationship dynamics
between prisoners and their adult visitors, there is a scarcity of empirical knowledge on
the influence of caregiver type on child contact (Brown & Bloom, 2009; Day et al., 2005;
Turney, 2014). Prior research has documented the complex relationships between
mothers and incarcerated men, and grandparents and incarcerated women; this research
also has demonstrated that although they are overwhelmed and frustrated, these
caregivers have their own needs and expectations to meet through prison visitation
(Brown & Bloom, 2009; Day et al., 2005; Roy & Dyson, 2005). Unlike mothers and
grandmothers, other family members and friends are not as entrenched with the prisoner,
and therefore, may be less willing to make the sacrifices associated with facilitating
43

This document is a research report submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. This report has not
been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

prison contact for children. This, however, is merely speculative given that no research
has empirically examined this relationship specific to child visitation and, hence, is the
focus of the present study.
How Do They Fare? Prison Visitation and Child Responses
In addition to examining the effect of caregiver type on whether or not parentchild visitation occurs, this dissertation explores how children who visit their incarcerated
parent fare behaviorally and emotionally. Christian and colleagues (2006) explain that
there is an assumption underlying much of the literature that prison visitation is in the
best interests of prisoners and their families. For instance, a sizeable body of work
indicates that prisoners who receive visits engage in lower levels of prison misconduct, as
visitation is seen as an incentive for good behavior (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002;
Cochran, 2012; Schaefer, 1994; Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005; Wooldredge, 1999).
Prison visitation has also been linked to reduced levels of recidivism (Bales & Mears,
2008; Duwe & Clark, 2013). Specifically, Bales and Mears (2008) found that among
prisoners who were visited, their odds of recidivism were 31% lower than the odds for
their counterparts who did not receive visits.
Prison visitation has been associated with improved psychological well-being of
prisoners and a greater likelihood of familial reunification upon release (Arditti & Few,
2008; Hairston, 1991; 2003; Roxburgh & Fitch, 2013; Stacer, 2012; Visher, LaVigne &
Travis, 2004; Visher & Travis, 2003). Although the examination of the effects of prison
visitation on inmate outcomes is indeed important, there is a scarcity of studies that
assess the impact of prison visitation on child well-being. In light of unprecedented rates
44

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

of imprisonment, understanding visitation’s effects on children becomes vital for research
and policy purposes.
Parent-child separation as a result of imprisonment may generate emotional and
behavioral problems for children because the imprisonment is often unanticipated,
disruptive and unexplained (Poehlmann, 2005b). Prison contact may alleviate or
exacerbate these problems. The study of prison visitation and child well-being, however,
is undoubtedly complex. As Arditti (2003) points out, visitation can have a “double edge”
for children in that it can ease any negative feelings associated with parental separation
by providing a context for familial connections, while at the same time posing its own
set of traumas given that the prison environment itself can be a fear-filled experience. In
her later work, Arditti (2012) termed this contradictory experience for children “the
visitation paradox,” noting that prison visitation may be seen as a key facilitator in
positive child adjustment but it may also contribute to adverse child responses. In short,
prison visitation may be both beneficial and harmful for children—hence, the “paradox.”
Two theoretical frameworks underlie the visitation paradox. First, attachment
theory, which is rooted in the disciplines of sociology and psychology, emphasize that the
loss of someone significant in our lives can generate negative responses (Harvey, 2002).
According to Boss (2004), “ambiguous loss results from situations of not knowing if a
person is dead or alive, absent or present” (p. 237). The loss of a parent to imprisonment
can be considered an ambiguous loss in that children experience the absence of a parent
in both a physical and psychological sense (Arditti, 2012).

45

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Specifically, attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969; 1973; 1980) has been used to
explain why parental imprisonment may cause adverse outcomes for children of
incarcerated parents in that disrupted primary attachments can be particularly stressful for
children. From an attachment perspective, prison visitation might be associated with
improved child well-being in that children are able to maintain or repair disrupted
parental attachments. Furthermore, children can see firsthand that their parent is safe as
the absence of a parent can lead a child to fear that something terrible has happened to
him or her (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002).
Alternatively, the second theoretical perspective that contributes to the visitation
paradox for children is that of “secondary prisonization.” Grounded in the early work of
Clemmer (1958) and Sykes (1958) on prisonization and the pains of imprisonment,
Comfort (2008) describes how visitation is the context by which prisons alter families’
lives personally, domestically and socially. Strict visiting policies and the obstacles
associated with visiting a prisoner can make family members feel like “quasi-inmates” in
which visitors are thereby transformed by their contact with the institution. Visitors can
be made to feel like intruders who are to be controlled through degradation and
intimidation (Comfort, 2008; Hairston, 1998). Given these institutional conditions, prison
visitation may eliminate any potential benefits of parent-child contact and could, in fact,
spark destructive child responses (Arditti, 2005).
The ways in which children’s behaviors relate to contact with the incarcerated
parent constitute an important but understudied process in the parental incarceration
literature. Prior work on coping responses among children during maternal and paternal
46

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

incarceration is limited, particularly in terms of understanding how prison visitation
influences the emotional and behavioral well-being of prisoners’ children. Among the
studies that do exist, findings are mixed.
For instance, Dallaire and Wilson (2010) found that children of incarcerated
parents reported more attention problems when they visited more often with the parent.
At the same time, however, children also reported fewer anxious/depressed and somatic
complaints after contact with the prisoner. Shlafer and Poehlmann et al. (2010) found no
statistically significant association between children’s contact with incarcerated parents
and caregiver- and teacher-reported behavior problems. Although some research focusing
specifically on visits documented positive child outcomes when such contact occurred as
part of an intervention (Landreth & Lobaugh, 1998), other studies found negative
outcomes when visits occurred in the absence of intervention (e.g., Dallaire et al., 2009;
Poehlmann, 2005b).
The inconsistent findings across existing studies appear in line with Arditti’s
(2012) concept of the visitation paradox in that children may benefit in some ways and be
harmed in others in visiting an imprisoned parent. In the following section, I provide a
detailed discussion of existing research that is rooted in these two competing theoretical
frameworks, highlight the limitations associated with prior work, and explain how the
current study attempts to fill these voids. In conducting my investigation qualitatively, I
am better able to tap into the nuances associated with prison visitation and child wellbeing.

47

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Benefits of prison visitation: Attachment. It is often maintained that parental
incarceration is harmful for children due to parent-child separation (Bowlby, 1973; Deck,
1988; Hagan & Dinovitzer, 1999; Myers et al. 1999; Poehlmann, 2005b). According to
attachment theory, if a child does not have sufficient contact with an attachment figure,
the child may experience emotional and developmental difficulties, hostility and
withdrawal, and an inability to maintain long-term interpersonal relationships (Bowlby,
1969; 1973; 1980; Deck, 1988; Poehlmann, 2005b; Poehlmann et al. 2010). This
perspective focuses on parent–child interactions that contribute to children’s close
relationships and well-being across the life span (Bowlby, 1969; 1973; 1980).
Attachment theory emphasizes the significance of disruptions in relationships that occur
when a child is separated from a parent, such as when a parent is incarcerated
(Poehlmann, 2005b). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, nearly a quarter of
children with parents in state prison were four years of age or younger (Glaze &
Maruschak, 2008). These statistics suggest that many children experience parental
separation due to imprisonment while in the process of forming primary attachments
(Poehlmann et al., 2010).
Johnston and Gabel (1995) posit that parental incarceration is a traumatic form of
separation that takes a toll on child well-being in several key ways. First, they contend
that children experience typical emotions as a result of the loss of their parent, including
grief, anger, and anxiety. Second, given the loss of a parent, these children often resent
rules set by their caregivers and begin to experience problems such as aggression, poor
grades, and sleeping and eating problems, as well as engage in delinquency and drug use
48

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

(Cooksey, Menaghan & Jekielek, 1997; Parcel & Menaghan, 1993; Travis, 2005;
Wildeman, 2009). Parental imprisonment is often considered to be a unique and
particularly distressing form of separation as it can result in ambiguity for children in
multiple dimensions of their lives (Murray & Farrington, 2008a; Poehlmann, 2005a).
Not surprisingly, parent-child separation due to parental incarceration has been
linked to a multitude of adverse child outcomes (Fritsch & Burkhead, 1981; Murray &
Farrington, 2006; 2008b; Owen, 1998; Phillips et al., 2006; Sharp and Marcus-Mendoza,
2001). Consistent with this perspective, studies have found that children of prisoners
often experience grief, nightmares, anger, and emotional distress as well as depression,
anxiety and other mental health problems (Boswell & Wedge, 2002; Dallaire, 2007a;
Fritsch & Burkhead, 1981; Phillips et al., 2002; Seidler & Sack, 1978; Tasca et al., 2014).
Previous studies demonstrate that boys who experience paternal incarceration are more
likely to exhibit sadness, withdrawn and clingy behavior, and internalizing problems than
those who do not (Murray & Farrington, 2008a), and that adolescents of incarcerated
parents have significantly higher rates of conduct disorder and attentiondeficit/hyperactivity problems (Phillips et al., 2002). Children of women inmates have
also been found to exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and
feelings of anger, guilt and long-term trauma due to the separation resulting from parental
imprisonment (Kampfner, 1995).
When considering that incarceration can be disruptive to parent-child bonds that
are critical to children’s’ emotional and behavioral well-being, prison visitation provides
an opportunity to repair and maintain attachments to parents, which may limit negative
49

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

behaviors among this vulnerable group (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Poehlmann et
al., 2010). Murray and Farrington (2006) contend that when children are able to maintain
contact with their imprisoned parent, coupled with stable living arrangements, the
negative effects of parent-child separation can be reduced. Though visits in prison can
evoke distress and expressions of insecurity (Dallaire, 2007a; Poehlmann, 2005b),
absence of any contact with parents may be problematic and associated with feelings of
alienation (Celinska & Siegel, 2010; Shlafer & Poehlmann, 2010). In other words, prison
visitation may provide these children a coping resource to deal with the loss of a parent.
From an attachment perspective, then, children who visit an imprisoned parent should
fare well.
Evaluations of programs that promote prison visitation between prisoners and
their children demonstrate the benefits associated with visiting an incarcerated parent for
children. For example, in one examination of a parenting intervention for 16 incarcerated
fathers, Landreth and Lobaugh (1998) found that children’s self-esteem increased across
a 10-week intervention. A key dimension of this intervention was a weekly parent–child
visit in which the fathers could interact and have physical contact with their children in a
child-friendly environment. A study examining the Girl Scouts Beyond Bars intervention,
which includes an enhanced visitation component, found that nearly all caregivers
interviewed reported some decrease in girls’ problem behaviors following the
intervention (Block & Potthast, 1998).
In addition, a lack of visitation with an incarcerated parent has been associated
with children’s negative feelings about their incarcerated parents. For example, in a study

50

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

of children who participated in a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents,
Shlafer and Poehlmann (2010) found that experiencing no contact with an incarcerated
parent was associated with children’s feelings of alienation from the parent. Mignon and
Ransford (2012) explain that maintaining an emotional bond through visitation can
provide a sense of protection and security for child and prisoner alike. Other studies
suggest that children have been found to look forward to their visits with their
incarcerated mother or father (Boswell & Wedge, 2002; Seidler & Sack, 1978), and that
prison visitation may reduce negative child behaviors and improve the quality of parentchild relationships (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Seidler & Sack, 1978).
Research reveals that parent-child visitation can help children verbalize emotions
regarding their parent’s absence (Poehlmann et al., 2010; Seidler & Sack, 1978), which
may help children cope with their loss. In addition, Trice and Brewster (2004) found that
children who maintained frequent contact with their incarcerated mothers were less likely
to experience school suspension, truancy and school drop-out. Interestingly, in a separate
study on 54 women on parole, Dodge and Pogrebin (2001) found that nearly half of these
women did not maintain contact with their families during confinement and these women
attributed the lack of in-prison contact as a factor in their children’s behavioral and
emotional difficulties. Visits allow children to express their emotional reactions regarding
separation from their parent and to see their parent’s situation realistically, thus relieving
fears about their parent’s safety and treatment which can be important for child wellbeing (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Johnston, 1995; LaVigne et al., 2005; Mignon &
Ransford, 2012; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008).
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and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Harms of prison visitation: Secondary prisonization. Research documenting
the harsh conditions of confinement was originally centered on inmate-only outcomes
(Clemmer, 1958; Sykes, 1958). Comfort (2008) extended this line of inquiry to include
the way in which visitors’ are shaped by encounters with the institution through
visitation. A key finding in her work pertains to the transformation of visitors’ into
“quasi-inmates” as family members are “subjected to weakened versions of the elaborate
regulations, concentrated surveillance, and corporeal confinement governing the lives of
ensnared felons and thus are secondarily prisonized by their interactions with the penal
institution” (p. 29).
Comfort (2008) describes the uncertainty surrounding visitation in her work. For
instance, there are no timeframes given to visitors for wait times (which can last several
hours) and forewarning is rarely given about amendments made to existing rules
regarding approved personal items or attire. The slightest misstep in documentation,
clothing, or behavior can result in a delay or even termination of the visit. Considering
that family members often commute far distances with minimal financial resources, such
hitches can be highly burdensome (Christian, 2005; Petersilia, 2003; Swanson et al.,
2013).
Overall, Comfort’s (2008) work highlights how the visiting experience can be
overwhelming for adults, but what about children? Although her study did not center on
children, she documented the commonality of mothers having to hush and console their
tired, crying children while in an overcrowded waiting area surrounded by electric fences,
metal doors and locked gates. Given her thick descriptions of the daunting prison
52

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

environment, it becomes clear how children might be negatively affected by navigating a
penal institution for visiting purposes.
Prison visitation has been linked to negative outcomes in children (Fritsch &
Burkhead, 1981; Poehlmann, 2005a; Poehlmann et al., 2010). Caregivers, caseworkers,
and prisoners themselves sometimes resist visitation by children, citing undesirable
reactions by children (Myers et al., 1999). In a survey of visitors with children visiting
California prisons, about half of the children had behavioral reactions to the visits, most
frequently excitability or hyperactivity before visitation. Nearly three-fourths of these
responses lasted one week or less, and about half occurred only on the visit day
(Poehlmann et al., 2010). Poehlmann and collegues (2008) examined how caregivers’
managed young children’s behaviors prior to, during, and after visits with incarcerated
mothers. Their analyses revealed that caregivers lacked knowledge and tools on how to
support children around visitation issues. Caregivers interpreted children’s behaviors
prior to and following visits as a source of great stress and they expressed concerns about
how this might impact children and the mother–child relationship.
In a separate study, Shlafer and Poehlmann (2010) conducted a qualitative
analysis of caregivers’ views of children’s contact with incarcerated parents. Caregivers
expressed both positive and negative feelings about parent-child prison visits. Although
many caregivers wanted the child to visit the incarcerated parent, some caregivers said
that they limited the amount of contact because of perceived behavioral changes, citing
children’s confusion, frustration, and being upset following visits with the imprisoned
parent. Dallaire et al. (2009) associated greater visitation frequency with insecure
53

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

attachment patterns in children. What is important to note here, however, is that the visits
in her study occurred through a window in a large, noisy room, in which children and
caregivers were sometimes frisked or patted down as part of the visitation screening
process (Dallaire et al., 2009). Such experiences surrounding visitation may frighten
children, thus adversely affecting their sense of security, and potentially their well-being
(Poehlmann et al., 2010).
Some research has considered the way in which institutional policies influence
children’s experiences of visitation with their incarcerated parent (Arditti, 2003; 2012;
Poehlmann et al., 2010). In her research of 56 caregivers of children visiting an
incarcerated family member in a jail in Virginia, Arditti (2003) documented the
challenges associated with the visitation experience for these families. Specifically,
caregivers described the difficulties of “no contact” visitation regulations for children, as
well as disrespectful treatment by facility staff. This experience is not uncommon. In
fact, in some correctional institutions, prisoners are prohibited from hugging, or holding
their child on their lap during the visiting session (Hairston, 1998; 2003). Caregivers as
well as incarcerated parents have reported wanting improved policies regarding visitation
with family members, including child-friendly settings that have age-appropriate games,
books and toys as existing conditions are not often conducive to children faring well
(Arditti, 2003; Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002).
Moreover, all prison visitors—including children—are subjected to a high degree
of scrutiny which can spawn feelings of insecurity and vulnerability (Comfort, 2008;
Grinstead, Zack & Faigeles, 2001; Hairston, 1998; Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005;
54

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Peelo, Stewart, Stewart & Prior, 1991). Of course, anyone who enters a correctional
institution can expect security protocols to be in place, yet the screening procedures are
not equally applied to everyone. For instance, volunteers are rarely subjected to dog
searches of their vehicles and bodies, nor do they have to wait for hours in line to go
through a metal detector (Comfort, 2008). The differential treatment of visitors and
volunteers is further evidence of “secondary prisonization” in that correctional staff—
responsible for maintaining institutional order in an impersonal and highly controlled
way—attempt to turn prison visitors into a submissive group that can be easily managed
according to prison regulations (Comfort, 2008; Crawley, 2004).
Furthermore, children are often exposed to various stresses in order to maintain
contact with an incarcerated parent, such as commuting far distances, having limited
physical contact with their parent, and having to come to terms with leaving their parent
behind once the visit has ended (Fuller, 1993; Grinstead et al., 2001; McDermott & King,
1992; Mignon & Ransford, 2012; Peart & Asquith, 1992). Compared with prisons, jails
are typically closer in proximity to the inmate’s family members, as prisons are often
located in remote areas (particularly women’s facilities). This can pose difficulties for
families who desire to visit a prisoner (Christian, 2005; Huebner & Gustafson, 2007).
Fuller (1993) discovered that 71 percent of visitors lived within 100 miles of the prison
facility and 80 percent described the trip to the prison as easy or very easy. While
geographic distance is known to play a role in whether or not family members visit an
incarcerated loved one, there is little empirical knowledge on how this exhausting,
resource demanding experience affects those who endure it—particularly for children
55

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

(Christian, 2005; Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005). Taken together, policies and barriers
inherent in the visitation process may pose emotional and behavioral challenges for
children coping with parental incarceration.
Theoretical and empirical extensions. One criticism that has been lodged
against the literature on prison visitation and on the effects of parental incarceration on
children more generally is that pre-incarceration life circumstances have been largely
ignored (Bales & Mears, 2008; Johnston, 2006; Murray et al., 2012). Factors such as
parental substance abuse and mental illness, family economic status and stability are
important to consider when assessing child well-being in that prison visitation does not
occur in isolation from other life circumstances (Tasca et al., 2014; Turanovic et al.,
2012). Moreover, child age is another indicator that is in need of inclusion in the study of
prison visitation and child well-being as attachment theories and secondary prisonization
perspectives would suggest varying degrees of benefits or harm depending upon how old
a child is during prison visitation (Arditti, 2012; Poehlmann et al., 2010).
One particular criticism of prior research using attachment perspectives is that
these studies often treat parental incarceration as the only form of parental absence that
children experience. This is problematic in that parental absence is not always a result of
imprisonment. As previously mentioned, only 64% of incarcerated mothers and 47% of
incarcerated fathers were residing with their children prior to imprisonment (Glaze &
Maruschak, 2008). What this suggests is that parent-child relationships are undeniably
complex and that disrupted attachments that might invoke adverse child responses may
be so pronounced that prison visitation alone is not enough to overcome them.
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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
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Equally important in assessing the effects of visitation on how children fare is the
consideration of parental substance abuse and mental illness. It is well-documented that
prisoners experience these pre-incarceration challenges at alarmingly high rates (Arditti
& Few, 2006; Dodge & Pogrebin, 2001; Greene et al., 2000; Murray & Farrington, 2006;
2008a; Owen, 1998; Phillips et al., 2006; Phillips & Harm, 1998). Parental substance
abuse and mental illness in particular can be severely disruptive to children’s lives
(Greene et al., 2000; Owen, 1998), which may play a role in their emotional and
behavioral responses to contact with their imprisoned parent. It is important to note,
though, that in some cases, parental imprisonment may be a reprieve for children and
caregivers from an abusive and neglectful parent (Giordano, 2010; Turanovic et al.,
2012).
Further embedded in the difficulties of parental mental illness and addiction for
children is that of parent gender. In other words, child exposure to these parent stressors
likely differs depending upon whether it is a mother or a father who is incarcerated
(Owen, 1998; Greene et al., 2000; Tasca et al., 2014). Research shows that female
prisoners have higher rates of mental illness and addiction than their male counterparts
(Glaze & Maruschak, 2008) and that incarcerated women often suffer from an
accumulation of stressors (Arditti & Few, 2006). While incarcerated fathers indeed suffer
from these stressors as well, children of incarcerated mothers are at higher risk of
exposure to these conditions given mothers’ greater involvement in the lives of their
children prior to incarceration (Arditti & Few, 2006; Owen, 1998; Tasca et al., 2014). As
with prior parental involvement, it is essential to take into account these stressors to more
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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

clearly assess the true effects of prison visitation on child emotional and behavioral wellbeing.
Furthermore, economic strain and family instability are common among this
vulnerable group of children (Geller et al., 2011; Murray & Farrington, 2006; 2008a;
Phillips et al., 2006; Turanovic et al., 2012; Wildeman, 2014). When a parent is
imprisoned, any economic support previously provided by the parent disappears and the
financial burden is shifted to the new or remaining parent or caregiver. What is more, the
absence of a parent due to incarceration can lead to changes in family structure whereby
children may be forced to change homes (i.e., residential instability) or schools
(Mackintosh et al., 2006; Phillips et al., 2006; Rodriguez et al., 2009; Tasca et al., 2011;
Wildeman, 2014). Not surprisingly, sudden residential changes can cause considerable
stress and interruption in children’s lives (Travis, 2005). In light of such challenges,
caregivers of prisoners’ children suffer from alarmingly high stress levels (Hanlon et al.,
2007; Mackintosh et al., 2006). This has important implications for children, as
overwhelmed caregivers are less equipped to help children cope with losing a parent to
incarceration (Sharp & Marcus-Mendoza, 2001). Given such turmoil in the lives of these
families, it is necessary to disentangle what prison visitation means for child well-being
from other life circumstances that may influence how they fare during maternal and
paternal incarceration.
Children’s age is an additional factor to consider in investigating how children
respond to parent–child prison visitation. Specifically, children’s feelings regarding
visitation may be expressed in different ways depending on their age (Poehlmann et al.,
58

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

2010). Young children are apt to express their confusion in an unclear manner and may
not be able to voice their concerns verbally (Poehlmann, 2005b). As such, younger
children may have particular difficulty visiting given the stress of the prison setting and
their limited capabilities in expressing their feelings surrounding their parent’s absence
(Arditti, 2003; Poehlmann et al., 2010). For older children, this is less often the case
given that as children develop, they may express their concerns about prison visitation
because of advances in verbal skills which may assist in their coping (Shlafer &
Poehlmann, 2010). Thus, the age of the child likely plays a role in how children fare in
relation to prison visitation as older children may need less emotional support from
caregivers during visits and can voice their opinions to caregivers more so than younger
children. In response to these gaps in prior work, it is important that research takes into
account parental attachment and secondary prisonization elements, prior life
circumstances and stressors and child age.
Synthesis and Current Research
As articulated earlier, I contend that caregiver type is key in predicting parentchild prison visitation, which is the first of two research questions assessed in this
dissertation. Specifically, I expect to find that children with grandmother caregivers
(during maternal incarceration) and children with mother caregivers (during paternal
incarceration) are the most likely to visit their imprisoned parent, net of other relevant
factors. Grandmother and mother caregivers have the most vested interests in maintaining
a connection between parent and child as these caregivers are overwhelmed by the heavy

59

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

burden from child rearing alone (Denby, 2012; Day et al., 2005; Hanlon et al., 2007;
Harman et al., 2007; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Roy & Dyson, 2005).
Facilitating parent-child prison visits allows these caregivers a sense of control, an
opportunity to vent and make demands of prisoners who have let them down repeatedly
in the past. In addition, these caregivers believe in the value of these children having a
relationship with their incarcerated parent, even though many of these parents have not
had quality relationships with their children on the outside (Arditti, 2012; Brown &
Bloom, 2009; Denby, 2012). While mother and grandmother caregivers may view prison
visitation as a means to jumpstart parenting among these prisoners, and make plans for
the future, these expectations are often “idealized” in that relying solely on prison
visitation as a means to resolve familial conflict, and address the accumulation of unmet
needs among these prisoners is often unrealistic (Nurse, 2002; Day et al., 2005). Sadly,
however, prison visitation is often the only available resource to attempt to remedy the
multifaceted problems these families face.
In terms of the second focus of this dissertation, I explore how children who visit
their incarcerated mothers and fathers in prison fare emotionally and behaviorally.
Although limited, research that considers children’s emotional and behavioral responses
to prison visitation are guided by two theoretical frameworks. First, attachment theories
have been used to highlight the benefits associated with prison visitation for child wellbeing (Dallaire et al., 2009; Poehlmann, 2005a; 2005b; Poehlmann et al., 2008;
Poehlmann et al., 2010). The second theoretical perspective that can explain how children

60

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

might fare poorly in response to prison visitation is that of secondary prisonization
(Comfort, 2008).
In light of these contradictory perspectives, Arditti (2012) contends that prison
visitation is a “paradox” in which visitation may be simultaneously good and bad for
children. On one hand, visitation may ease negative feelings surrounding parental
separation but at the same time spark fear and stress given the intimidating nature of the
prison setting. No study to date has explored the notion of the visitation paradox (Arditti,
2012) in that research rarely captures factors from both attachment and secondary
prisonization perspectives in the same study. Moreover, factors such as prior life
circumstances (e.g., substance abuse, mental illness) have not always been consistently
captured in prior work (Johnston, 2006; Murray & Farrington, 2008a). The same is also
true of child age in that children across all developmental stages (e.g., preschool, school
age, early adolescence, late adolescence) are rarely included in the same study
(Poehlmann et al., 2010). Given that these indicators may play a role in how children fare
in the context of prison visitation, it is important for researchers to consider them to paint
a more complete picture of these families’ lives and experiences.
The current study addresses limitations of previous work in several key ways.
First, whereas prior studies typically include only one form of parental incarceration, I
include children with both incarcerated mothers and fathers. Given rising rates of female
imprisonment (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), the study of children who experience
maternal and paternal incarceration paints a more complete picture of imprisonment
experienced by families. Second, this study focuses on children of inmates incarcerated in
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prison and not jail. As Holleran and Spohn (2004) have pointed out, this is an important
distinction as prison sentences are qualitatively different experiences than jail sentences.
For instance, prison terms are longer in length than jail stints, prisons are typically
located at greater distances from family members and prisons have different sets of
regulations surrounding contact which have implications for families remaining
connected through visitation. Third, the current research extends empirical knowledge
beyond the African American family by the inclusion of White, Latino/a and Native
American prisoners, caregivers and children. The majority of existing research has
centered on Black families and as a result the literature does not adequately speak to
imprisonment experienced by other racial and ethnic groups affected by high rates of
incarceration—particularly in the southwest. Fourth, I am able to include prior life
circumstances and stressors as well as child age, and barriers such as geographic distance
to the correctional facility, all of which may play a role in whether or not children visit
and in how children who do visit fare. In so doing, this dissertation advances theory
through its focus on family systems within a mass imprisonment framework as well as its
extension of the visitation paradox to consider pre-prison circumstances and age-graded
effects.

62

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Chapter 3
Data and Methods
Introduction
Guided by prior research, this dissertation investigates two research objectives by
employing a mixed method approach. First, I examine children’s connection to their
incarcerated mothers and fathers, focusing on the influence of caregiver type in the
facilitation of parent-child prison visitation. To reiterate, I quantitatively assess:
Paternal Incarceration
1.

Are children experiencing paternal incarceration more likely to visit their father in
prison when the primary caregiver is a mother rather than a different caregiver,
net of relevant controls?

Maternal Incarceration
2.

Are children experiencing maternal incarceration more likely to visit their mother
in prison when the primary caregiver is a grandmother rather than a different
caregiver, net of relevant controls?

Second, I examine the behavioral and emotional responses of children who visit their
incarcerated mothers and fathers by qualitatively exploring the following questions:
3.

4.

5.

What role do “visitation paradox” factors (i.e., parental attachment, secondary
prisonization) play in how children respond emotionally and behaviorally to
prison visitation, as perceived by caregivers?
How do pre-incarceration life circumstances (e.g., stressors) influence children’s
emotional and behavioral responses to prison visitation with an incarcerated
parent, as perceived by caregivers?
How does age affect children’s responses to prison visits?
In light of these research objectives, this chapter will focus on the following

methodological considerations. First, I will describe the setting of the study by including
population and demographic information on the state, county and prison system in which
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the sample was drawn. I will also provide background information on the state prison
system, including number of facilities, classification and housing procedures, and prison
visitation protocols. Given that the current study is comprised of two distinct objectives, I
will discuss the methodology pertaining to each research question separately.
Accordingly, the first section in this chapter will cover the relationship between
caregiver type and the likelihood of parent-child prison visitation. The second section of
this chapter will cover how children fare in the context of prison visitation. Within each
of these two sections, I will detail the data sources used to conduct the analyses,
including the sampling strategies employed, rates of participation, and the
representativeness of the samples. I will then describe the units of analysis, followed by a
discussion of the measures and thematic codes included in each investigation and analytic
strategies. Finally, I conclude this chapter with a section that reiterates the full focus of
the dissertation and the contribution of the present research.
Setting
The data used for the current study come from 1) interviews with 300 men and
300 women prisoners incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) who
self-identified as being a parent to at least one minor biological, adopted or step child
(N=1400) in 20101; and 2) interviews with caregivers of children who experienced
maternal and paternal incarceration in late 2010/early 2011 and who reside in Maricopa
County, Arizona (N=100). The setting of this study in the southwest allows for a glimpse
into parental incarceration in an understudied region of the United States. According to
the latest estimates, nearly six million people live in the state of Arizona, which covers
1

Over 97% of children were reported by prisoners to be biological children.

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approximately 113,000 square miles (State of Arizona, 2013). The majority of the state’s
population lives in Maricopa County (roughly four million people), which is the fourth
most populated county in the U.S. (Maricopa County, 2010). Much of the literature on
incarceration has relied on predominately African American samples. One of the central
contributions of this study is that it is able to extend research to Latino/a, Native
American and White prisoners and their families, given this state’s racially and ethnically
diverse population. Specifically, roughly 60% of Arizona residents are identified as
White, nearly 30% are Latino/a, 5% are American Indian, and 4% are African American
(FedStats, 2009).
The incarcerated population in the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) is
also diverse. As of early 2010 when the data for the present study were collected, there
were approximately 40,611 inmates incarcerated in ADC; 37,144 were men and 3,467
were women (Arizona Department of Corrections, 2010a). Among the male prisoners,
approximately 39% were White, 41% were Latino, 5% were Native American and 13%
were African American. Among the female inmates, half were White, approximately
30% were Latina, 8% were American Indian and nearly 11% were African American
(Arizona Department of Corrections, 2010a).
Arizona has a total of 15 prisons, of which 10 are state-run and five are private
facilities. Of these 15 institutions, only one prison houses female inmates (ASPCPerryville). When inmates first arrive in ADC custody, they go through an intake process
to calculate their classification level (i.e., minimum, medium, close or maximum), which
is used to determine housing placements (Arizona Department of Corrections, 2010b).
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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Because there is only one female correctional facility, women go through intake in the
Perryville Complex and are housed in a unit within this facility that corresponds to their
classification level. For male prisoners, the process differs in that all men are initially
confined in one facility that is used exclusively for intake (ASPC-Alhambra) (Arizona
Department of Corrections, 2010b). Confinement in the Alhambra Complex can last from
a few days to several weeks, depending on the number of inmates awaiting classification,
intake resources (e.g., staffing), and available bed space in the facility in which the
prisoner will be housed. As a result of this intake process, all male prisoners are confined
in one institution for a short period of time. Alhambra becomes an ideal setting for
researchers attempting to sample the male inmate population in Arizona.
Despite the strength of sampling male prisoners from this facility, inmates are not
yet eligible for visitation, however. Once inmates are transferred to their designated
prison unit from Alhambra, the visitation process may be initiated. It is important to note
here that since father-child prison visitation could not be captured during data collection
at Alhambra, we inquired about father-child visitation among men who have served a
prior prison term (57% of men had served at least one prior prison sentence). Thus,
parent-child visitation is captured for all female inmates (with reference to the current
imprisonment term) and for only those men who have served at least one prior
incarceration term (with reference to the most recent prior incarceration period).
The Arizona Department of Corrections allows prisoners to receive visits from a
maximum of 10 persons, who must first be approved by the agency (e.g., background

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check) (Arizona Department of Corrections, 2011)2. Individuals over the age of 18 who
wish to visit an inmate in ADC may apply for themselves and any applicable children
once a prisoner has completed intake and is housed in the prison unit that was determined
by his or her classification level3. Given that visitation is not permitted during intake and
that visitation applications can take several weeks to approve, visitors generally are not
able to visit a prisoner until he or she has been incarcerated in ADC for at least 30 days
(Arizona Department of Corrections, 2011).
Two data sources will be used to carry out the investigations of both research
objectives. I will now discuss the data and methods used to test each question separately.
Caregiver Type and Parent-Child Visitation
Data. To satisfy the first objective of this study, I examine the relationship
between caregiver type and whether children visit their incarcerated mothers and fathers
in prison. Since I expect caregiver type to differ by gender, I analyze maternal and
paternal incarceration separately. For those experiencing maternal incarceration, I rely on
quantitative data gathered from structured interviews with 300 incarcerated mothers of
732 children to determine if children who reside with grandmother caregivers are more
likely than children residing with other caregivers to visit their mother in prison, net of

2

All visitors must have a government-issued form of identification. This policy poses unique challenges for
undocumented men, women and children who wish to visit an inmate in ADC.
3
In 2011, the Arizona Department of Corrections instituted a policy that required all visitors to pay a onetime $25 fee when applying to visit an inmate. It is important to note that this policy was implemented after
data collection for the current project.

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relevant controls. Upon the removal of missing data, a sample of 279 mothers of 684
children is produced for analysis4.
For paternal incarceration cases, I test whether children with a mother caregiver
are more likely than children with other caregivers to visit an incarcerated father in
prison, above and beyond other factors. The data used to test this hypothesis are compiled
from structured interviews with 300 incarcerated fathers of 668 children. As discussed
previously, an important distinction between the maternal and paternal incarceration
samples, however, is that men were interviewed during intake and therefore were not yet
eligible for prison visitation. Since the majority of these 300 fathers have served a prior
prison term in ADC (57%), male inmates were asked about child visitation during their
last incarceration period (when applicable). Accordingly, 171 incarcerated fathers were
asked about prison visitation with their corresponding 398 children during their prior
prison term5. Upon the removal of missing cases where the children were yet to be born,
143 fathers of 300 children comprise the final paternal incarceration sample used in the
analysis of caregiver type and father-child prison visitation6.

4

For the maternal incarceration sample, most missing data were missing on the dependent variable (visit
yes/no) given that some women were not yet eligible for prison visitation. Other missing data included
women not knowing certain life circumstances about their children (e.g., caregiver).
5
My inability to capture parent-child prison visitation among fathers who are serving their first prison term
in ADC is a limitation of the current study. To consider how these groups of men may vary, I compared
fathers with prior prison histories to those who do not across multiple characteristics. Fathers who have
served at least one prior prison term (the 171 fathers of the 300 fathers included in the present analysis) are
less likely to have committed a public order offense, more likely to be property offenders, slightly older,
and are more likely to be African American than those fathers without prior ADC histories. Considering
that the majority of men incarcerated in ADC have served a prior prison term, examining child visitation
patterns among this group is undoubtedly important.
6
For the paternal sample, 93 of the 398 children of fathers included in the study were born after their
father’s prior prison term and therefore were excluded from analysis. The remaining missing data was due
to fathers not knowing the life circumstances of their children (e.g., caregiver).

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These data come from a larger study on parental incarceration in Arizona7. This
project included extensive, structured interviews with a sample of male and female
prisoners who self-identified as being the parent of at least one biological, step or adopted
child under the age of 18. The interviews touched upon a multitude of domains including:
parent/child living situation before incarceration, caregiver information and current child
living situation, in-prison contact and visitation, child behavior and service needs and
parental factors and stressors.
Arizona State University researchers, including Dr. Nancy Rodriguez, myself and
three other graduate students set out to conduct interviews with 300 incarcerated mothers
and 300 incarcerated fathers. This investigation was carried out between February and
May of 2010 in the Arizona State Prison Complex-Phoenix Alhambra Reception and
Treatment Center (for the paternal incarceration sample) and the Arizona State Prison
Complex-Perryville in the San Pedro, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz, Santa Maria and Piestewa
Units (for the maternal incarceration sample). Interviewing male prisoners during the
intake process allowed for sampling of male inmates across all classification levels and
maximized the use of limited resources by eliminating the need to travel to all ADC
institutions8. Because approximately 75% of female prisoners in ADC are housed in
minimum security units, interviews with women prisoners were conducted in three
minimum security units and in one unit that housed a combination of both minimum and
7

For a full description of the larger study, the final report may be obtained at:
http://www.azcjc.gov/ACJC.Web/Pubs/Home/COIP_Final.pdf.
8

The paternal incarceration sample included male prisoners classified as minimum, medium, close and
maximum security which covers all offense types. The only exclusion from our sample were maximum
security sex offenders as correctional staff did not permit us to interview them given the safety risk posed
by having these prisoners out of their cells to undergo an interview. Maximum security sex offenders,
however, are a small portion of the male prisoner population in ADC (less than 5%).

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medium security prisoners, in an effort to obtain a representative sample of the female
prisoner population.
At the start of each day of data collection, researchers were provided with a
current count sheet of all prisoners in the unit. From that list, every ninth prisoner was
identified and subsequently approached by a member of the research team. Arizona
Department of Corrections staff did not screen or recruit prisoners for participation in the
study. Correctional staff and a researcher would locate the randomly identified prisoner,
determine eligibility and ascertain consent. If the prisoner agreed, prison staff would
escort the inmate to the designated interview location. Prisoners were free to decline to
participate and they did not receive any incentives for participating in the interview.
Interviews between researchers and the inmates were private as prison staff were not
present during the interviews.
A total of 1,005 prisoners were approached by the research team, including 554
men and 451 women. Among those approached, fewer than seven percent of men and
four percent of women declined to participate in the study. Since these data collection
efforts were centered on parental imprisonment, not all inmates who were approached
were eligible for participation. For instance, roughly 30% of men and 14% of women
indicated that they were not parents to any children, approximately 10% of men and 17%
of women reported that they were parents of only adult children and two percent of men
indicated that their children had either passed away or were not yet born (e.g., mother is
currently pregnant). As a result, 58.0% of men and 68.9% of women approached in ADC
self-identified as being the parent of at least one child under the age of 18.
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The figures in these data are comparable to national estimates outlined in the
Bureau of Justice Statistics (2008) Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional
Facilities (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008), which is a primary source for information on
prisoners and their children. In addition, researchers assessed the representativeness of
the approached sample by comparing it to the racial and ethnic composition of the ADC
prisoner population. While Latino men were slightly under represented and American
Indian men were slightly overrepresented, all other racial and ethnic groups mirrored the
larger ADC prison population along racial/ethnic lines.
All data were entered into an SPSS database by two graduate students in 2010.
Data were subsequently merged with official ADC records. Given the extensive nature of
the prisoner interviews that included information on parent-child prison contact, the
current caregivers of children and pre-incarceration living circumstances, parent stressors
and prior involvement, these data are well-suited to test the relationship between
caregiver type and parent-child prison visitation. A coding scheme for all variables
included in the analysis is provided in Table 1.
Dependent variables. Whether or not a child visited his or her incarcerated
mother (as reported by mothers) or father (as reported by fathers) are the two outcome
measures used in the current analyses. Both outcome measures are dichotomous9.
Specifically, children who never had a prison visit, according to their incarcerated mother

9

Unfortunately, a continuous measure of parent-child visitation is not available. During interviews,
visitation was captured using a categorical variable that measured frequency of visitation including: never,
daily, weekly, at least once per month, and less than once per month. Given the limited variation across
these categories, ordinal logit models could not be run to predict visitation frequency. As a result, the
measure was recoded as a dichotomous variable to reflect whether or not the parent had ever received a
prison visit from his or her child.

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were coded as “0” and children who had visited, according to their incarcerated mother
were coded as “1”. Approximately 45% of children were reported by mothers to have
visited in prison. During paternal incarceration, visitation was captured only for men who
had served a prior prison term in ADC (as discussed previously). If a father reported that
his child visited him in prison during his last prison term that child was coded as “1” and
if the father reported that his child had never visited him during his prior prison term, that
child was coded as “0”. Slightly less than one-third of children were reported to have
visited their father in prison (31%).
Key independent variables. Caregiver type is the key independent variable in the
present analysis. In order to capture caregiver type, male and female prisoners were asked
to identify the primary caregiver of each of their children (e.g., other parent, grandparent,
foster care/institutional placement, other relative, non-family member). Given that I
expect children in the care of grandmothers to be the most likely to visit incarcerated
mothers, I created a dummy variable for “grandmother” (1=yes; 0=no) to be used in the
maternal model. Forty-two percent of maternal children were reported to be in the care of
a grandmother. On the other hand, since I expect that children in the care of their mothers
will be the most likely to visit their fathers in prison, I created a binary variable for
“mother” (1=yes; 0=no) to be used in analysis. Roughly 75% of paternal children were
reported by fathers to be cared for by their mothers.

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Relevant controls. Based on prior research, I account for child situational factors,
child demographics, parental stressors and institutional barriers that may play a role in
whether or not children visit their mothers and fathers in prison.
Specifically, for both maternal and paternal models, child situational factors are
captured with the following variables reported by the prisoners: 1) whether or not the
caregiver receives public assistance (1=yes; 0=no); 2) residential mobility, which is a
continuous measure of the number of times the child moved residences in the past year;
and 3) a prior parental involvement scale. I constructed the prior parental involvement
scale using three parent-reported measures: (a) whether or not the prisoner reported living
with his or her child in the month prior to incarceration (1=yes; 0=no); (b) whether or not
the prisoner reported serving as the primary daily care provider to his or her child in the
30 days before incarceration (1=yes; 0=no); and (c) whether or not the prisoner reported
that he or she was the primary financial supporter of his or her child in the month before
incarceration (1=yes; 0=no). Principal components analysis confirmed that these three
items were unidimensional (eigenvalue = 2.18, loadings > .72). This scale is also
characterized by a high level of reliability (Cronbach’s α = .81).
I control for several demographic characteristics of children (as reported by
prisoners). Gender of the child is included where boys are coded as “0” and girls are
coded as “1”. Child race/ethnicity is captured with dummy variables for White, Black,

73

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Latino/a, and American Indian, (Blacks are the reference category) that reflect the
race/ethnicity of the incarcerated parent as represented in official ADC records10.
To control for parent stressors, I include binary measures of parental mental
illness, which reflects whether or not the prisoner reported that he or she has been
professionally diagnosed with a mental health problem (1=yes; 0=no), parental substance
abuse which captures whether or not the prisoner reported using illicit drugs in the month
before confinement (1=yes; 0=no) and parental rights terminated which reflects whether
or not prisoners indicated that their parental rights to their children had been terminated
by a court (1=yes; 0=no). In addition, I include a continuous measure for the number of
prior prison terms, self-reported by the prisoner. Dummy measures for current offense
type (e.g., violent, property, drug, public order) provided by ADC are used, where
property offense is the reference category. An official measure of sentence length (in
months) is logged and also included in analyses.
Lastly, two measures that reflect institutional barriers to visitation are used. First,
geographic distance reflects the distance from the prisoner’s home zip code (provided by
ADC) to the prison complex in which he or she is incarcerated. The distance was
computed for each case using Google Maps. If the distance was greater than 101 miles, it
was coded as “1”, if the distance was 100 miles or less, it is coded as “0”11.

10

Children are classified as the same race/ethnicity as the focal prisoner as data is not available on the
race/ethnicity of the child or the child’s other parent. As such, it cannot be determined if children are
biracial or multiracial.
11
An official measure of the prisoner’s zip code from his/her home address in ADC records was used.
While the prisoner’s zip code may differ from that of the child’s, it was the only available measure to
estimate geographic distance.

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Second, minimum (1=yes; 0=no) is used to capture prisoner security level as reported
from ADC records.
Unit of analysis. In my quantitative assessment of caregiver type and the
likelihood of prison visitation, the focus is on the child’s likelihood of visiting their
mothers and fathers in prison (as reported by prisoners). Accordingly, children are the
unit of analysis. As previously explained, caregiver type is expected to differ depending
on the gender of the incarcerated parent.
Analytic strategy. My analysis proceeded in two stages. First, I examined
bivariate relationships between my key independent variables of interest (i.e., caregiver
type) and prison visitation between children and their incarcerated parent. Specifically, I
assessed the bivariate association between children with grandmother caregivers and
mother-child prison visits. Then, I investigated the bivariate relationship between
children with mother caregivers and father-child prison visits. Second, multivariate
regression models were estimated to examine whether children being cared for by (1)
grandmothers during maternal incarceration; and (2) mothers during paternal
incarceration, were more likely to visit their incarcerated parents, net of relevant factors.
Given the distribution of my dependent variables, logistic regression analyses were
conducted (Long, 1997). Unstandardized coefficients and odds ratios are reported. Since
prisoners often have more than one child, I controlled for within-family clustering in this
analysis. Specifically, clustered robust standard errors were used to correct for
correlations between children from the same parent.

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Prison Visitation and Child Responses
Data. To carry out the second phase of this dissertation, I relied on data collected
from in-depth, semi-structured interviews with 100 caregivers of 218 children
experiencing maternal or paternal incarceration. Since this qualitative analysis centers on
the emotional and behavioral responses of children who have visited an incarcerated
parent as perceived by their caregiver, a randomly identified sample of 40 children who
have visited a mother or father at least once is used (based on caregiver reports). The
caregiver interviews consisted of open-ended questions that covered several key
dimensions in the lives of prisoners’ families including: caregiving histories and living
situations of the children, parent-child relationship information, in-prison visitation, child
responses to visitation, expectations surrounding the parent’s release, and child behavior
and family service needs.
This study is an extension of the Arizona parental incarceration project discussed
in the previous section. Relying on child caregiver information provided by prisoners,
three members of the research team set out to recruit 100 caregivers to participate in the
study through phone calls and letters mailed to caregivers’ residences. During phone calls
and included in letters written to caregivers, the purpose of the study was conveyed,
confidentiality was guaranteed, and we asked for and encouraged caregiver participation.
We further related that participation in the study was voluntary and that caregivers would
receive a $50 cash incentive for a 60 to 90 minute interview.
Given resource limitations, only prisoners with caregivers and children residing in
Maricopa County were included. A random sample of 75 incarcerated mothers and 75
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incarcerated fathers, with home addresses in Maricopa County, was compiled from the
full sample of 600 prisoners to generate a caregiver sample affected by both paternal and
maternal incarceration. Among the 75 paternal incarceration cases that we attempted to
reach, 16 had a disconnected phone number or an invalid/incorrect number. Two
caregivers did not respond to our contact attempts and two other paternal caregivers
declined participation in the study.
Among the 75 maternal caregivers that we attempted to contact, seven had a
disconnected number or an invalid/incorrect number. Eight of these maternal caregivers
did not respond to our contact efforts and two declined to participate in the study. Among
caregivers interested in participating in the study, we scheduled an interview date and
time with a member of the research team. Interviews continued until we completed a total
of 100 caregiver interviews. Nearly all interviews were conducted in private offices in the
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. For some
caregiver participants, however, commuting to the downtown ASU campus was not
feasible given their lack of transportation, or physical ailments that prohibited coming to
campus. In an effort to accommodate these caregivers, a researcher conducted phone
interviews in lieu of a face-to-face meeting. The 100 caregiver interviews were conducted
in English and Spanish between October, 2010 and March, 2011.
The interviews with caregivers provided rich, detailed, descriptions about various
aspects of the lives of children and caregivers experiencing maternal and paternal
incarceration. The interview questions were open-ended and researchers probed
participants in their responses to questions, resulting frequently in a back and forth
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dialogue between caregiver and researcher. Although the interview style was very much
open and free flowing, the interviews were semi-structured with researchers relying on a
questionnaire to ensure that key points were covered in all interviews. Specifically, the
interviews began with questions pertaining to the living situations and guardianship
histories of the children, followed by questions related to informal and formal support
received by the caregivers in caring for the children and any struggles and/or barriers in
obtaining such support. The next set of questions focused on parent-child contact,
including prior parental involvement and in-prison parent-child visitation. In particular,
caregivers were asked about the barriers/obstacles in facilitating contact between
prisoners and children (for those who did take the children to visit their incarcerated
parent in prison) and for children who did not visit their incarcerated parent, caregivers
were probed for reasons behind this decision. Caregivers were then asked about how
children respond to the level of contact they have with their incarcerated parent.
Additional topics covered in the interviews with caregivers included expected child
adjustment upon the parent’s release and the caregiver’s expected role in the child’s life,
as well as questions pertaining to caregiver concerns over existing child behavior and
family service needs. The interviews concluded by asking the caregiver to provide
demographic information on themselves and the children (e.g., race/ethnicity, age) as
well as alternative contact information that the research team could use in reaching out to
them in the future.

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All interviews were recorded and were later transcribed by a professional
transcriptionist12. The detailed accounts articulated by caregivers yielded valuable data on
the experiences of those affected by paternal and maternal imprisonment. These nuanced
data are highly useful for exploring parent-child prison visitation and child well-being, as
they include factors related to parental attachment and institutional barriers linked to
secondary prisonization. As such, these data cover the elements within the prison
visitation paradox (Arditti, 2012) that have not been fully considered in previous studies.
Thematic codes. Guided by the notion of the visitation paradox (Arditti, 2012)
which includes theoretical dimensions of attachment (Bowlby 1969; 1973; 1980) and
secondary prisonization (Comfort, 2008), I assess the behavioral and emotional responses
of children who visit their incarcerated mother or father.
Child emotional and behavioral responses. To explore how children who visit an
imprisoned parent fare, caregivers were asked to discuss how children respond
emotionally and behaviorally to prison visitation with their incarcerated parent. Positive
and negative internalizing and externalizing behaviors perceived by caregivers are
identified and coded. Examples of negative internalizing behaviors include excessive
crying, withdrawn behavior, depressive symptoms, and attitudinal changes. Examples of
negative externalizing behaviors consist of aggression, temper tantrums, and acting out.
Positive child responses to visitation include the absence of negative internalizing and
externalizing behaviors (e.g., cheerful attitude, performing well in school).

12

Two interviews were conducted in Spanish. These two interviews were excluded from analyses,
however, as these two caregivers and corresponding children were not visiting.

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Visitation paradox elements. To measure parental attachment, caregivers were
asked to describe the relations between the child and his or her incarcerated parent before
incarceration. The level of closeness between parent and child are coded. To capture
secondary prisonization factors, caregivers were asked about how (if at all) institutional
barriers and the correctional setting more broadly played a role in prison contact between
children and incarcerated parents. Factors related to visitation regulations, treatment of
visitors by staff, and the availability of child-friendly visiting rooms are identified and
coded.
Prior life circumstances. Prior parental absence, parental substance abuse, and
mental illness (as reported by caregivers) are coded and included in analysis as these life
stressors are common experiences among prisoners’ families. The way in which these
experiences shape behavioral and emotional well-being among children during prison
visitation is an important and understudied dimension to this line of inquiry. Moreover,
children of incarcerated mothers may have had greater exposure to an accumulation of
stressors (Arditti & Few, 2006; Owen, 1998; Tasca et al., 2014) and as a result may
influence how children respond to contact.
Child age. The age of a child may affect how he or she reacts to prison visitation,
as younger children may have difficulty expressing their feelings verbally (Poehlmann et
al., 2010). Accordingly, child age is coded and considered in the context of the prison
visitation experience for the child as described by the caregiver.

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Unit of analysis. In this qualitative exploration into the effects of prison
visitation, the focus is on how the child responds to prison visits with an imprisoned
mother or father. As such, children are the unit of analysis. Since these data come from
interviews with caregivers, however, participants often discussed more than one child
during the interview. To address the issue of nested data in this qualitative analysis, I
randomly identified one child per included case (N=40).
Analytic strategy. As mentioned earlier, the second phase of data collection
included in-depth interviews with 100 caregivers of 218 children. Among the full sample,
120 children had visited their incarcerated parent at least once, as reported by the
respective 54 caregivers. To carry out my analysis on the emotional and behavioral
responses of children who visit an incarcerated parent, I purposively sampled 40 children
across four key age groups from the 120 children who had visited a mother or father in
prison, according to caregiver reports. I sampled by age given its likely influence on how
children respond to prison visitation. Specifically, from the roster of 120 children, I
divided the list of children into the following four groups: preschool (age 5 and younger);
school age (age 6 to 11); early adolescence (age 12 to 14) and late adolescence (age 15
to 18). I randomly identified 10 children from each age group. If I selected a sibling of a
child previously identified for inclusion, I reselected another case in order to ensure that
the 40 children were part of 40 distinct family units.
Among the 40 children, 55% had an incarcerated mother and 45% had an
incarcerated father. Nearly half of these children were identified by caregivers as Latino
(45%), approximately 27% were African American, 18% were White and 10% were
81

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American Indian. There were slightly more boys included in the sample (55%) and given
the sampling strategy, the children were 10.3 years of age, on average. Half of the
children were in the care of a grandparent, 43% were cared for by their other parent and
7% had another family member serving as their caregiver. The incarcerated parents of
these children were serving a mean sentence of three years.
Once the final sample of 40 children who visited an incarcerated parent was
identified, I systematically reviewed and coded the positive and negative responses of the
children to visitation as perceived by caregivers, along with visitation paradox elements,
parental involvement and stressors and child age. Next, thematic content analyses were
used to capture the major themes present in caregivers’ accounts (Lofland & Lofland,
1995). The content analyses were conducted using the qualitative software Dedoose—a
web-based application designed by social scientists in which researchers are able to
organize transcripts, highlight excerpts and code user-defined terms. In addition, I wrote
a series of analytic memos to further explore and link themes among and across cases.
Lastly, frequencies of the types of child reactions to prison visits as perceived by
caregivers and descriptive information on these children were produced in SPSS.

82

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Conclusion
This study furthers our understanding of the collateral consequences of
imprisonment by assessing the ability of children and their incarcerated parents to remain
connected despite their vulnerable status and the institutional barriers confronting them. It
expands upon prior research by drawing on a racially and ethnically diverse sample of
male and female prisoners and caregivers in the southwest to explore the likelihood of
parental prion visitation. Moreover, this study contributes to research on what prison
visitation means for child well-being, as these data are well-suited to examine important
dimensions of parental attachment and secondary prisonization factors. Both data sets
include pre-incarceration stressors and life circumstances of prisoners’ children that are
important to consider in assessing the predictors and effects of prison visitation during
parental incarceration. And, through the inclusion of both paternal and maternal cases, as
well as a wide range of children’s ages, this study sheds light on potential differences in
these experiences for children. In addition, this dissertation contributes to broader work
on the imprisonment period itself by examining the complex phenomenon of prison
visitation.

83

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Chapter 4
Results for Caregiver Type and the Likelihood of Prison Visitation
Introduction
In this chapter, I describe the results from descriptive and multivariate analyses
that predicted the probability of mother-child and father-child prison visitation.
Accordingly, bivariate statistics and logistic regression analyses were conducted and are
presented for maternal and paternal incarceration separately. First, however, I describe
all variables under examination and the coding scheme for both maternal and paternal
incarceration cases (see Table 1).
The dependent variable in the present analyses was ever visited (yes/no) as
reported by the incarcerated parent. Consistent with the latest national estimates on
parents in state prison (Glaze & Maruscak, 2008), roughly 45% of children were reported
by their incarcerated mothers to have visited at least once. Among children experiencing
paternal incarceration, less than one-third (31.3%) of children were reported by
imprisoned fathers to have ever visited.
Given the limited empirical knowledge on the role of caregiver type in the
facilitation of parental prison visitation, this research attempted to fill that gap in the
literature. To capture caregiver type, I relied on two dummy variables: grandmother
(maternal incarceration) and mother (paternal incarceration). Children in the care of other
caregivers included other parents, other relatives (e.g., aunt, uncle, cousin), non-relatives
(e.g., friend), and state placements (e.g., foster care, group home). Importantly, these data
were well-suited to carry out an investigation on caregiver type and prison visitation
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given the diverse family systems of the prisoners interviewed. During maternal
imprisonment, 42.1% of children were reported by mothers to be cared for by a
grandmother. During paternal incarceration, approximately 75% of children were
reported by fathers to have a mother as their primary caregiver. Results are consistent
with national estimates on child placements during maternal and paternal incarceration
(Glaze & Maruschak, 2008).
In addition, I included several child situational factors that prior research suggests
(Phillips et al., 2006; Tasca et al., 2011) might play a role in whether children visit their
incarcerated parent. For children experiencing the incarceration of a mother, more than
half (56.6%) lived with a caregiver who was reported to be on public assistance,
according to prisoner reports. In paternal incarceration cases, fathers reported that 62.3%
of their children were in a household in which their primary caretaker was a public aid
recipient. Moreover, as incarcerated mothers indicated, their children moved an average
of 0.5 times in the past year. Children of incarcerated fathers were reported by their
fathers to have moved 0.8 times in the past 12 months, on average. Using the same prior
parental involvement scale as Tasca et al. (2014), three prisoner-reported dummy
variables were included: (1) whether the parent lived with his or her child during the
month before incarceration; (2) whether the parent served as the primary daily care
provider to the child during the month prior to incarceration; and (3) whether the parent
was the primary financial supporter of the child during the month before confinement.
Mothers reported a mean parental involvement factor score of 0.4. Fathers reported a
mean factor score of 0.2.
85

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I controlled for child demographics including gender, race/ethnicity and age in the
current analyses. Approximately 52% of children experiencing maternal incarceration
were boys and 48% were girls, as reported by mothers. Among children experiencing
paternal imprisonment, 45% were boys and 55% were girls, as indicated by fathers. The
majority of maternal children were White (44.3%), followed by Latino/a (35.3%),
African American (11%) and American Indian (9.4%). Nearly half of the paternal
children were Latino/a (45.7%), 25.7% were African American, 20.3% were White and
8.3% were American Indian. Incarcerated mothers reported that their children were 9.1
years of age, on average. Incarcerated fathers reported that their children had a mean age
of 10.1 years.
Grounded in prior work, a host of parent stressors were used in analyses (Arditti,
2012; Murray et al., 2012; Poehlmann et al., 2008). Data revealed that nearly half of
children’s incarcerated mothers reported having been diagnosed with a mental illness
(49.1%). More than one-quarter (28.7%) of children’s incarcerated fathers indicated that
they had been diagnosed with a mental health problem. Moreover, self-reports of parental
substance abuse in the month prior to incarceration were quite high, although consistent
with national estimates (Glaze & Maruschak, 2008). Specifically, nearly 60% of
children’s incarcerated mothers reported using illicit substances in the 30 days prior to
confinement. Sixty-three percent of incarcerated fathers reported illicit substance use in
the same period.

86

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Table 1. Coding Scheme.
Maternal
%
(N=684)

Paternal
%
(N=300)

1=Yes; 0=No

44.6

31.3

Independent Variables
Caregiver type1
Mother (paternal cases)
1=Yes; 0=No
Grandmother (maternal cases) 1=Yes; 0=No

--42.1

74.7
---

1=Yes; 0=No
Moves in past year (M; SD)
Factor score (M; SD)

56.6
0.5; 0.9
0.4; 0.9

62.3
0.8; 1.1
0.2; 1.0

Boys are reference category

51.9
48.1

45.0
55.0

In years (M; SD)

44.3
11.0
35.3
9.4
9.1; 4.6

20.3
25.7
45.7
8.3
10.1; 4.5

1=Yes; 0=No
1=Yes; 0=No
1=Yes; 0=No
Number prior terms (M; SD)

49.1
59.8
19.9
0.6; 0.9

28.7
63.3
9.7
2.1; 1.3

20.5
39.9
28.7
11.0
5.7; 3.2

23.0
29.7
27.7
19.7
5.0; 3.0

Dependent Variables
Parent-child visitation
Visited ever

Child situational factors
Caregiver public assistance
Residential mobility
Prior parental involvement
Child demographics
Gender
Boys
Girls
Race/Ethnicity
White
Black
Latino/a
American Indian
Child age
Parent stressors
Prisoner mental illness
Prisoner substance abuse
Parental rights terminated
Prior prison terms
Current offense type
Violent
Property
Drug
Public order
Sentence length (ln)

Blacks are reference category

(Property is reference category)

Natural log of sentence length

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Table 1. Coding Scheme (continued).
Maternal
%
(N=684)

Paternal
%
(N=300)

Institutional barriers
101 miles or more

Geographic distance (1=Yes;
29.4
55.3
0=No)
Minimum security
1=Yes; 0=No
81.0
46.7
1
Children not residing with mothers (paternal cases) or grandmothers (maternal cases) are
with “other caregivers” which include: other parent; other relative; non-relative (e.g.,
friend) or state placement.
Furthermore, approximately 20% of children’s imprisoned mothers reported that
they had their parental rights severed by a court. Ten percent of children’s imprisoned
fathers reported that their parental rights were terminated. Female prisoners reported
serving an average of 0.6 prior prison terms. Male prisoners reported having served 2.1
prior prison sentences, on average. Official ADC records revealed that the majority of
mothers were incarcerated for property crimes (39.9%), followed by drug offenses
(28.7%), violent crimes (20.5%) and public order offenses (11.0%). Thirty percent of
fathers were imprisoned for property offenses, 27.7% were confined for drug crimes,
23% for violent crimes and 19.7% for public order offenses. ADC data showed these
imprisoned mothers serving average sentence lengths of 5.7 years. For incarcerated
fathers, the mean prison term was five years.
Two measures were used to control for institutional barriers in the present
analysis: geographic distance and prison security level. Both factors have been included
in prior work on prison visitation (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Poehlmann et al.,
2008; Stacer, 2012; Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005). Based on official ADC records,
88

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approximately 29% of maternal children resided at least 101 miles from Arizona’s sole
female correctional institution. The fact that the majority of families of women inmates in
ADC live close to the female prison is not surprising in that the women’s prison is
located on the outskirts of Maricopa County, the most populated county in the state.
Among paternal children, more than half were found to live 101 miles or more from the
prison complex that housed their father, according to official records. In terms of prison
security level, similar to the larger ADC population, 81% of these mothers were
classified as minimum security inmates as were 47% of fathers.
As noted previously, in light of the distinct hypotheses surrounding caregiver type
and the likelihood of parental prison visitation depending upon which parent was
incarcerated, analyses were conducted separately for maternal and paternal incarceration.
In the following sections, results are presented accordingly.
Descriptive Statistics of Maternal Prison Visitation
Table 2 presents the independent variables by mother-child prison visitation.
Descriptive analyses revealed several significant relationships between independent
variables and mother-child prison visits. Based on maternal reports, children who have
visited their mother in prison were significantly more likely to be in the care of a
grandmother caregiver than other caregiver types (e.g., fathers, other relatives, nonrelatives, state custody). In fact, more than half of children who visited their mother lived
with their grandmother versus 33% of children who did not visit, according to
incarcerated mothers.

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Table 2. Descriptive Statistics of Maternal Prison Visitation.

Caregiver type
Grandmother***
Child situational factors
Caregiver public
assistance*
Residential mobility
Prior parental
involvement***
Child demographics
Gender
Boys
Girls
Race/Ethnicity
White
Black†
Latino/a
American Indian†
Child age
Parent stressors
Prisoner mental illness
Prisoner substance abuse
Parental rights
terminated***
Prior prison terms**
Current offense type
Violent
Property
Drug**
Public order
Sentence length (ln)***

Child Did Not Visit
(N=379)
%

Child Visited
(N=305)
%

33.0

53.4

53.0

61.0

0.6; 0.9
-0.3; 0.9

0.5; 0.8
0.3; 0.9

51.2
48.8

52.8
47.2

43.3
9.2
36.7
10.8
9.3; 4.8

45.6
13.1
33.8
7.5
8.9; 4.7

49.9
60.4
26.1

48.2
59.0
12.1

0.7; 1.0

0.5; 0.8

20.3
37.7
32.5
9.5
3.0; 0.9

20.7
42.6
23.9
12.8
3.6; 0.7

Institutional barriers
101 miles or more**
34.0
23.6
Minimum security*
78.4
84.3
Note: N=684. ***ρ ≤ .001; **ρ ≤ .01; * ρ≤ .05; †ρ ≤ .10. Differences across prison
visitation were tested using chi-square and t-tests.
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Two child situational factors were associated with maternal prison visitation
(based on prisoner reports): caregiver public assistance and prior parental involvement.
First, children who were reported by their mothers to have visited were more likely to
have a caregiver who received public assistance than children who were reported to have
not visited (61% versus 53%). Second, children who were reported by mothers to have
visited were more likely to have mothers who were more involved in their lives prior to
incarceration than children who were reported by mothers to have not visited (mean
factor score of 0.3 versus -0.3). Residential mobility was not significantly related to
maternal prison visits.
Two race/ethnicity measures were associated with maternal prison visitation.
Specifically, children who were reported by their incarcerated mothers to have visited
were more likely to be African American than children who were reported to have not
visited (13.1% versus 9.2%). On the other hand, children who were reported to have
visited by their incarcerated mothers were less likely to be American Indian than those
children who were reported to have never visited (7.5% versus 10.8%). The child’s
gender and age were not statistically significant.
The descriptive analyses further revealed that children who have visited their
mother in prison were less likely to have a mother whose parental rights had been
terminated than children who had not seen their mother since her imprisonment (26.1%
versus 12.1%), according to maternal reports. Children experiencing maternal
incarceration who were reported by mothers to have visited were more likely to have a
mother who served fewer prison terms, and were less likely to have a mother who served
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time for a drug offense. Moreover, there is a positive association between sentence length
and mother-child prison visitation. Interestingly, parental substance abuse and parental
mental illness were not associated with prisoner-reported visits with children.
Both institutional barriers were significantly related to mother-reported child
prison visitation. Children who were reported by mothers to have visited were more
likely to live closer to the correctional facility than those who did not visit. For example,
nearly one-quarter (23.6%) of children who were reported by their mother to have visited
lived 101 miles or more from the prison, versus 34% of children who were reported to
have not visited. Similarly, children who visited, according to incarcerated mothers, were
more likely to have a mother housed in a minimum security unit than those who had not
visited their mother in prison (84.3% versus 78.4%).
Collectively, the type of caregiver (i.e., grandmothers) and various child
situational factors, child demographics, parent stressors, and institutional barriers were
significantly related to maternal prison visits. As mentioned earlier, however, residential
mobility, child gender, child age, parental mental illness, and parental substance abuse
were not associated with mother-child prison visits.
Descriptive Statistics of Paternal Prison Visitation
Bivariate associations across father-child prison visitation for all independent
variables are presented in Table 3. First, caregiver type (i.e. mothers) was significantly
related to paternal-reported prison visitation. Among children who were reported by their
incarcerated fathers to have visited, 88.3% had a mother caregiver compared to 68.4% of
children who were reported to have never visited.
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Table 3. Descriptive Statistics of Paternal Prison Visitation.

Caregiver type
Mother***
Child situational factors
Caregiver public assistance
Residential mobility
Prior parental
involvement*
Child demographics
Gender
Boys
Girls
Race/Ethnicity
White
Black**
Latino/a*
American Indian†
Child age
Parent stressors
Prisoner mental illness
Prisoner substance abuse
Parental rights terminated†
Prior prison terms
Current offense type
Violent
Property
Drug
Public order
Sentence length (ln)

Child Did Not Visit
(N=206)
%

Child Visited
(N=94)
%

68.4

88.3

59.7
0.8; 1.2
-0.1; 0.9

68.1
0.7; 0.9
0.2; 1.0

45.6
54.4

43.6
56.4

19.9
20.4
49.5
10.2
10.2; 4.5

21.3
37.2
37.2
4.3
9.9; 4.7

28.2
65.0
11.7
2.2; 1.4

29.8
59.6
5.3
2.1; 1.2

24.8
27.2
26.7
21.4
2.7; 0.7

19.1
35.1
29.8
16.0
3.1; 0.6

Institutional barriers
101 miles or more
55.8
54.3
Minimum security
48.5
42.6
Note: N=300. ***ρ ≤ .001; **ρ ≤ .01; * ρ≤ .05; †ρ ≤ .10. Differences across prison
visitation were tested using chi-square and t-tests.
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Secondly, prisoner-reported prior parental involvement and father-child prison
visitation were positively related. Specifically, children who visited their father in prison
were more likely to have a previously involved father (i.e. lived together, daily care
provider, financial provider) than children who had not visited (mean factor score of 0.2
versus -0.1). In contrast, neither caregiver public assistance nor residential mobility were
related to paternal reports of prison visitation between fathers and their children.
Among the paternal incarceration sample, race/ethnicity was associated with
father reports of prison visits with children. For instance, children who visited their father
in prison were significantly more likely to be African American, and less likely to be
Latino/a or American Indian than non-visiting children. Roughly 37% of African
American children were reported by their incarcerated fathers to have visited while only
20.4% of African American children had not visited. On the other hand, while 37.2% of
Latino/a children were also reported by their incarcerated fathers to have visited, nearly
half of Latino/a children were reported to have never visited their father in prison. Only
4.3% of American Indian children had visited their incarcerated father while 10.2% had
not, according to prisoner reports. Child gender and child age were not associated with
father-child prison visitation.
Not surprisingly, children who were reported to have visited their incarcerated
fathers were less likely to have a father whose parental rights had been severed by a court
than were children who were reported to have never visited (5.3% versus 11.7%).
Descriptively, parental rights termination was the sole parental stressor associated with
father-reported child prison visitation, as prisoner mental illness, prisoner substance
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abuse, prior prison terms, current offense type and sentence length were not statistically
significant.
Interestingly, neither institutional barrier measure was significantly related to
paternal-reported prison visitation at the bivariate level. In other words, geographic
distance was not associated with paternal prison visits. The same is also true for prison
security level.
Collectively, only four factors were correlated with prisoner-reports of paternal
prison visitation. These factors included caregiver type (i.e. mothers), prior parental
involvement, race/ethnicity (i.e. African American, Latino/a, American Indian) and
termination of parental rights. In fact, most child situational factors, parent stressors, both
institutional barriers, child gender and child age were unrelated to father-child prison
visits at the bivariate level.
Logistic Regression Results: Maternal Incarceration
The logistic regression results for caregiver type on the likelihood of parental
prison visitation are presented in Table 4. In the maternal model, children with
grandmother caregivers were significantly more likely to be reported by their
incarcerated mothers to have visited than were children in the care of other guardians
(e.g., fathers, other relatives, non-relatives, state custody), net of relevant controls. More
specifically, children who lived with grandmothers had an increased odds of maternal
visitation by a factor of 1.894 (exp[0.638]). This finding confirms my expectation that
caregiver type is a key explanatory variable for maternal-reported prison visitation.

95

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Several child situational factors also predicted the likelihood of mother-child
prison visitation. For instance, children were 1.927 times (exp[0.656]) more likely to
have visited a mother in prison who was previously more involved in their lives—in
terms of living together, providing daily care and financial support—than children whose
mothers were previously less involved. Alternatively, while caregiver public assistance
was associated with maternal prison visits at the bivariate level, this relationship did not
hold in the multivariate model. Residential mobility was also statistically insignificant in
this model.
Furthermore, child demographics did not predict the likelihood of maternalreported prison visitation. Although race/ethnicity (i.e. African American, American
Indian) was related to mother-child prison visits in descriptive analyses (ρ ≤ .10), when
controlling for other relevant factors in the multivariate model, race/ethnicity was not a
significant predictor of the respective outcome. Child age and child gender were also
unrelated to maternal prison visits.
Three parent stressors predicted whether children visited their mother in prison,
according to maternal reports. These factors included parental rights termination, type of
current offense and sentence length. For instance, children were 0.293 (exp[-1.226])
times less likely to visit their incarcerated mother if her parental rights had been
terminated than children whose mothers still maintained rights to their children. With
respect to type of current offense, maternal children were 0.410 (exp[-0.890]) times less
likely to be reported by mothers to have visited if their mother was in prison for a violent
crime and 0.545(exp[-0.367]) times less likely to be reported to have visited if their
96

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mother was incarcerated for a drug offense (ρ ≤ .10) than a property crime. Moreover, as
sentence length increased, the odds of mother-child visitation increased by a factor of
3.917 (exp[1.367]). Parental mental illness, parental substance abuse and prior prison
terms were not significantly associated with the likelihood of maternal-reported prison
visitation.
Both institutional barriers predicted the likelihood of mother-child prison visits.
Specifically, children who lived 101 miles or more from their mother’s correctional
institution were 0.498 (exp[-0.696]) times less likely to be reported by mothers to have
visited than children who lived closer. Additionally, children whose mothers were housed
in a minimum security unit had greater odds of visiting than children whose mothers were
confined in medium, close or maximum security units by a factor of 2.533 (exp[0.930]).
Thus, the results of the maternal logistic regression model show the important role
grandmothers play in the facilitation of mother-child prison visitation. Further, results
underscore the significance of prior parental involvement, parental rights termination,
type of offense, sentence length and institutional barriers (i.e., geographic distance,
prisoner security level) on whether or not children were reported by incarcerated mothers
to have visited during her confinement.

97

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98

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0.195
0.440
0.437
0.584
0.024

0.116
-0.186
-0.043
-0.291

0.309
0.154
0.141

--0.287

S.E.

-0.058

0.345
-0.169
0.656***

Child situational factors
Caregiver public assistance
Residential mobility
Prior parental involvement

Child demographics
Gender
Girls
Race/Ethnicity
White
Latino/a
American Indian
Child age

--0.638*

Independent Variables
Caregiver type
Mother
Grandmother

b

Maternal Model

1.123
0.830
0.958
0.971

0.944

1.412
0.844
1.927

--1.894

Odds

-0.129
-0.575†
-1.517*
0.008

-0.174

0.407
-0.152
0.516***

1.268**
---

b

0.424
0.338
0.646
0.032

0.276

0.303
0.135
0.158

0.417
---

S.E.

Paternal Model

Table 4. Logistic Regression Results: Caregiver Type on the Likelihood of Parent-Child Visitation.

0.879
0.563
0.219
1.001

0.840

1.502
0.859
1.676

3.554
---

Odds

99

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-0.696*
0.930*
-4.783

Institutional barriers
101 miles or more
Minimum security
Constant

42.67***; 19

100.88***; 19

0.274
0.288
0.996

0.412
0.355
0.457
0.230

0.343
0.316
0.565
0.122

Paternal Model
S.E.

-164.122

0.105
-0.207
-1.829*

-0.367
-0.017
-0.379
0.249

-0.165
-0.432
-0.181
0.019

b

-345.256

0.498
2.533

0.410
0.545
1.283
3.917

1.178
0.934
0.293
0.803

Odds

1.110
0.813

0.693
0.983
0.685
1.283

0.848
0.649
0.835
1.019

Odds

R2
0.26
0.12
N=
684
300
Note. ***ρ ≤ .001; **ρ ≤ .01; * ρ≤ .05; †ρ ≤ .10. Unstandardized coefficients, odds ratios, and clustered robust
standard errors are reported. Boys, blacks and property offenses are reference categories.

-2 Log Likelihood
χ2; df

0.167
0.199
0.448
0.206

-0.890*
-0.367†
0.249
1.367***

0.307
0.407
0.958

0.303
0.335
0.415
0.162

0.164
-0.069
-1.226**
-0.219

Maternal Model
S.E.

Parent stressors
Prisoner mental illness
Prisoner substance abuse
Parental rights terminated
Prior prison terms
Current offense type
Violent
Drug
Public order
Sentence length (ln)

b

Table 4. Logistic Regression Results: Caregiver Type on the Likelihood of Parent-Child Visitation (continued).

Logistic Regression Results: Paternal Incarceration
The logistic regression results for the likelihood of paternal prison visitation are
also presented in Table 4. In line with my hypothesis, caregiver type is significantly
related to whether or not a child visits his or her father in prison, based on father reports.
Specifically, children with mother caregivers were 3.554 times (exp [1.268]) more likely
to have been reported to have visited by incarcerated fathers than children with other
caregivers (e.g., other relatives, non-relatives and state custody), after controlling for
child situational factors, child demographics, parent stressors, and institutional barriers.
Prior parental involvement was also a significant predictor of paternal-reported
prison visitation. Children whose fathers were more involved in their lives before
imprisonment were 1.676 times (exp [0.516]) more likely to have visited their father in
prison than children whose fathers were less involved with respect to living together,
daily care and financial support pre-incarceration. No other child situational factors (e.g.,
caregiver public assistance, residential mobility) significantly affected whether children
were reported by fathers to have visited their father in prison.
In terms of child demographics, race/ethnicity influenced the probability of
father-child prison visitation. Specifically, Latino/a children were 0.563 times (exp[0.575]) less likely to have visited their imprisoned father than were African American
children (ρ ≤.10). Likewise, American Indian children were less likely to have visited
their father than were their African American counterparts by a factor of 0.219 (exp[1.517]), based on paternal reports. In contrast, other child demographics such as age and
gender were not significant predictors of paternal prison visitation.

100

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It is important to note that no parent stressors or institutional barriers were
statistically significant predictors of father-reported child prison visits. For example,
prisoner mental illness, prisoner substance abuse, parental rights termination, prior prison
terms, current offense type and sentence length were not associated with whether or not
children were reported to have visited their imprisoned fathers. While parental rights
termination was correlated with paternal prison visits at the bivariate level, this
relationship did not hold in the multivariate model. Additionally, neither geographic
distance (i.e. 101 miles or more) nor prison security level affected the probability of
father-reported prison visitation.
Together, only three variables accounted for whether or not a child visited his or
her father in prison: caregiver type (i.e. mothers), prior parental involvement, and
race/ethnicity. In line with expectations, mothers, in fact, do serve as the key facilitator of
father-reported child contact during paternal imprisonment. Also as expected, fathers
who were more involved with their children before confinement were more likely to
report having been visited by their children in prison. And lastly, racial and ethnic
differences also affected the likelihood of paternal visitation, with Latino/as and
American Indians less likely to have been reported by fathers to have visited than African
Americans.

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Chapter 5
Findings for Child Responses to Prison Visitation
Introduction
The second aim of this dissertation was to examine how children responded
emotionally and behaviorally to visitation with an incarcerated parent, as perceived by
caregivers. To reiterate, I qualitatively explored the following research questions among a
purposive sample of 40 children who were reported by their primary caregiver to have
visited their incarcerated mother or father in prison at least once:
1.

2.

3.

What role do “visitation paradox” factors (i.e., parental attachment,
secondary prisonization) play in how children respond emotionally and
behaviorally to parental prison visitation, as perceived by caregivers?
How do pre-incarceration life circumstances (e.g., stressors) influence
children’s emotional and behavioral responses to prison visitation, as
perceived by caregivers?
How does age affect children’s responses to parental prison visitation?

As identified by their caregivers, these children are racially and ethnically diverse
in that 45% are Latino/a, 27.5% are African American, 17.5% are White and 10% are
American Indian. There are a slightly higher number of boys than girls in this sample
(55% versus 45%). Given the purposive sampling strategy that randomly identified 10
children across each of four key age groups (i.e., preschool, school age, early
adolescence, late adolescence), the mean child age was 10.3 years. Slightly more than
half of these children were experiencing the incarceration of a mother and 45% were
experiencing the incarceration of a father. Parents of these 40 children were serving
average prison terms of just over three years (37.9 months). Half of the children resided

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with a grandparent, 42.5% lived with a parent and 7.5% of children were cared for by
another relative (i.e., aunt, cousin).
Results revealed that nearly two-thirds of children reacted negatively to parental
prison visitation (65%; n=26) while only 35% demonstrated positive responses (n=14).
Among the 65% of children who responded negatively, caregivers characterized
children’s reactions as largely emotional, including expressions of fear, anger, and
anxiety. Caregivers indicated that children would cry excessively, experience emotional
outbursts and exhibit depressive symptoms (e.g., withdrawn). Other responses to visits
included poor attitude, acting out, and developmental regression (e.g., acting “younger”
than age) while interacting with the incarcerated parent.
Alternatively, for 35% of these children, visiting an imprisoned mother or father
generated positive responses. In these cases, caregivers described children as excited,
having an improved attitude, and heightened spirits. Caregivers also noted that these
children were better behaved during visits than at home in terms of following rules,
listening, and being engaged. Even more, the promise of future visitation was used as an
incentive for good behavior by some caregivers as many children looked forward to visits
with their parent in that it was an opportunity to communicate and bond.
Two key themes emerged from thematic content analyses of caregiver accounts to
explain child responses to visitation: (1) Institutional context (e.g., secondary
prisonization); and (2) parental attachment. These themes reflect the importance of
context but also underscore the complexities inherent in these parent-child dynamics,
consistent with much of Christian’s prior work on prison visitation and familial/romantic
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relationships (Christian, 2005; Christian & Kennedy; 2011; Christian, Mellow &
Thomas, 2006).
With respect to my first research question, these findings lend support to Arditti’s
(2012) theoretical concept of the “visitation paradox” in that both penal environmental
conditions and parental attachment shaped how children responded to visits with an
incarcerated mother or father. The institutional context, however, surfaced as the
dominant theme. First, the punitive nature of correctional settings often extends to family
members in the context of visitation. Intrusive search procedures, poor treatment by
correctional staff, and visiting rooms that are not conducive to family interaction meant
that many children had great difficulty coping with exposure to the prison environment.
This finding is in line with Comfort’s (2008) work and others (see Christian, 2005;
Swanson et al., 2013) that suggest that the carceral setting has transformative power for
visitors who endure it.
Second, levels of parental attachment impacted many children’s responses to
interaction with their mother or father in the visiting room. For some children, parental
attachments were highly strained in light of their parent’s limited prior involvement—as
revealed in caregiver interviews—which was often a result of criminal activity, substance
abuse, or an unwillingness or inability to parent, consistent with prior research (Hanlon et
al., 2007; Owen, 1998; Roy & Dyson, 2005). As a result, the visitation encounter often
sparked negative responses in these children given such highly complex family dynamics.
With respect to my second research question, there was no direct support for preincarceration life circumstances impacting the way in which children responded to
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interaction with their parent during prison visitation. Stated differently, caregivers did not
attribute children’s reactions to visits to specific challenges endured by children before
the parent’s imprisonment. Rather, caregivers discussed children’s responses in the
context of the institution or parental attachment and not as linked to a particular preincarceration event—even when children had been exposed to various parental stressors
in the past.
Interestingly and somewhat surprisingly, child reactions to parental prison visits
did not vary by age, as explored in the third and final research question. Of course, there
were some age differences in the manner by which children expressed their emotions
regarding visitation across developmental stages, but an age pattern did not emerge with
respect to whether children’s responses were positive or negative. For example, an
emotional reaction from a two-year-old might include throwing himself/herself on the
floor and crying excessively, whereas an emotional reaction from a 16-year-old might
consist of yelling angrily at the parent. In both cases, while these two children expressed
their reactions differently, both responded negatively to the visit encounter. As such, the
lack of support for child age in how children react to parental prison visits appears to be
attributed to the power of the institutional context and levels of parental attachment,
which may have trumped any potential age-graded effects.
In the following, I illustrate the nuances of my findings by detailing the themes
inherent in the “visitation paradox” that accounted for children’s reactions to visitation
with a mother or father in prison.

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“Visitation Paradox”: Institutional Context
Among the 40 children included in the present analysis, the institutional context
accounted for 73% (n=29) of child responses to parental prison visitation. Of the 29
children for whom institutional context was key, 69% (n=20) were reported by caregivers
to have demonstrated negative responses. In contrast, 31% (n=9) of these children
responded positively to visitation, as indicated by their primary caregiver.
I will first begin by describing the way in which the penal environment sparked
negative child responses, as illustrated by Shawna’s13 experience—a 17-year-old African
American adolescent whose father was incarcerated—as depicted by her mother:
First of all, it was a long, tiring drive. It’s always a long drive wherever he’s at.
And then we get there, we have to sit there and we have to get searched. It’s an
uncomfortable feeling for me so I know it’s uncomfortable for the kids so I said
we’re not going to keep going through this. And you have to sit like we can’t
really touch, no kissing. It’s hugging only at the end. And then you can’t take
food or anything. They have machines like you can get food from the machines
and that’s it….[my daughter] does a lot of crying. Other times she’s just like
angry. She’s real mean sometimes.
In this case, the caregiver described how the visitation process itself (e.g., distance to the
prison, wait times, search procedures) and lack of family-friendly visitation rooms
prompted negative reactions in her daughter to such a degree that she decided that the
family will not visit again. Similarly, Josh—a 15-year-old White youth whose father is in
prison—is reported to have expressed negative emotions after his interaction with the
carceral visitation setting. Josh’s mother articulated how taxing and intrusive the
experience was:

13

Pseudonyms are used for confidentiality purposes.

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It was stressful because you had to make sure you had the right clothes on and the
guard at the gate might think what you had on was appropriate but when you got
back to the building, that guard might not think your shirt was appropriate. And
then of course you get sniffed by the dog. You have to empty your pockets and
you can’t take this in and you have to make sure that your money is in a clear
baggie, just, really stressful. And even when you got in, it was just stressful. And
there wasn’t a whole lot for my son to do when we were up there visiting, you
know. It was hard on him. His attitude was really pretty lousy when he came out
of the prison. It was hard on both of us. I think it was probably about all we could
both handle.
One Latino father explained how unfriendly staff coupled with strict security protocols
instilled fear and uncertainty into his five-year-old son Miguel:
They treat people really bad down there. They work with prisoners so they treat
visitors like prisoners too. They don’t realize we are their family and we don’t
have problems, the prisoners have the problems. They don’t respect visitors. It’s
a hard time to take your shoes off, walk without shoes, go through a metal
detector. Or, we don’t have enough change to buy sodas or the chocolate donuts.
[My son] is always yelling for me. [My son] feels it. It’s something I can’t hide.
Ray—a two-year-old American Indian boy—had a strong emotional reaction to
witnessing his incarcerated mother getting searched by correctional staff as he stood
behind the barred gate. Ray’s father recounted his young son’s experience:
[His mom] was at the gate because after you see the prisoners, they put them
behind the fence. You can see the prisoners from here and they’re over there until
they get strip-searched. So, [my son] would sit down at the fence like this,
“Mama, mama”. [My son] was crying and I had to pick him up and he would say,
“I wanna stay in jail with my mom”.
As illustrated by the experiences of Shawna, Josh, Miguel and Ray as told by their
caregivers, navigating visitation processes and procedures is stressful and intimidating.
Other caregivers reflected on the aftermath of interacting with the penal environment for
children who visited an incarcerated parent. For instance, the grandmother of Adrian—a
nine-year-old Latino whose mother is in prison—explained how her grandson was
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negatively affected emotionally and behaviorally by the visitation experience in which
the effects lingered beyond visiting day:
The thing about it is that if we do see her, like on a Sunday—most of the time it’s
Sunday—the next day, [Adrian] tends to act up. To me, it’s better to not have too
much contact because there’s a time lapse in here where I want these kids to get
their emotions together.
Likewise, the caregiver of a six-year-old African American girl depicted how his young
cousin Danica had great difficulty coping with visiting her father in a correctional
institution. Danica’s emotional outbursts during visits lasted well after the family arrived
home where her caregiver attempted to console her while simultaneously struggling with
his own discomfort over having exposed her to the punitive carceral environment:
She literally just screams and goes crazy. I’m just like, ‘Oh, I hate doing this. I
don’t like doing this at all.’ Once we get back to the house, we sit down, she’ll cry
for a little bit and I tell her it’s okay, it won’t be much longer. She’ll talk to me
and be like, ‘How many more times do we have to go see him like that?’ and ‘I
don’t want to keep going to see him like that.’
As mentioned earlier, the institutional context did not elicit negative responses in
all children. In 31% of these cases the institutional context positively shaped children’s
reactions to parental prison visitation. For instance, caregivers explained how visiting
rooms in some correctional units were family-friendly, which put children at ease in
interacting with their parent. The grandmother of Lacey, an 11-year-old White girl,
explained how carceral settings that were family-sensitive prompted positive responses
from her granddaughter:
If you can make this normal, they do, [correctional officials] really try to make it
normal, there are games to play, there are vending machines, and there is junk
food. Once the inmate gets moved up for their behavior, you can bring food from
home, they have food visit days. At first [Lacey] used to cry every visit; now she
looks forward to it.
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Another caregiver described how the ability to have face-to-face contact in which the
parent and child can show affection to one another resulted in a positive experience for
the child. This caregiver compared the institutional context of jail visitation to that of
prison visitation for her grandson Connor—a two-year-old White toddler—whose mother
was incarcerated:
You are not allowed to even touch at the jail and they are shackled to a table. You
know, it is just a short visit with a lot of other people [at the jail] but the visit to
the prison is good. [My grandson] blows her kisses and he welcomes her so
warmly.
For most of these cases where the institutional context was linked to positive child
reactions, the children were visiting a parent in a minimum-security unit14. As a result,
visiting protocols and search procedures were less intrusive and the contact in the
visitation rooms were less regulated, thereby promoting a more comfortable environment
for families to interact. For Keisha, a four-year-old African American preschooler,
entering the penal environment for visitation was “easy” given her mother’s minimumsecurity classification, according to her grandmother:
Oh, [my granddaughter] is fine. She is on a minimum yard now, so it is much
easier, you know, you don’t have to go through all the mess that you did when she
was on a medium or max yard. Now, you just fill out the paperwork, walk through
the gate, hand them your ID and just go right in there and see her. Much easier.
Now, [my granddaughter] would like to see her more.
Considered together, the present findings are consistent with prior work (Arditti,
2012; Comfort, 2008; Christian, 2005). Children who encountered burdensome visitation

14

It is important to note that an inmate’s security level in ADC is not solely based on type of offense
committed, but rather is made up of a variety of risk scores involving institutional, community, mental
health, education, substance abuse and other factors. As such, minimum security inmates are not a
homogenous group comprised of one offender type.

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processes and security protocols overwhelmingly responded negatively to prison
visitation with an imprisoned parent. Correctional officers were often described as
unwelcoming, as were the visitation rooms themselves. The inherently intimidating
nature of the prison environment often induced fear into children as they navigated
through metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and loud, slamming metal gates. The punitive
nature of this environment prompted many caregivers to question whether or not
visitation was conducive to the child’s well-being. Indeed, some caregivers even stated
that the child’s first visit would be their last. Whether or not caregivers change their
minds about visitation later on, though, is unknown. On the other hand, when correctional
units were welcoming and family-friendly, utilized less invasive search procedures and
provided opportunities for families to connect (e.g., food visits), children tended to
respond positively to the visit encounter. Still, the major takeaway from these findings is
that the majority of children were often uncomfortable in, and apprehensive of, the
correctional institution to which they were exposed, thereby prompting negative
responses.
“Visitation Paradox”: Parental Attachment
For nearly half (45%; n=18) of all children in the sample, parental attachment was
a driving force in their responses to prison visitation with an incarcerated parent. Among
these 18 children, 56% (n=10) were characterized by caregivers as having strained
parental attachments in which they would respond negatively to visits. In contrast, 44%
(n=8) of these 18 children were reported to have reacted positively to visitation with their

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incarcerated mother or father as caregivers in these cases attributed their responses to
strong parental attachments.
I begin by describing cases in which caregivers attributed children’s negative
reactions to parental prison visitation to low levels of parental attachment. Nathan—a
three-year-old American Indian boy—whose mother has been sporadically involved in
his life given her struggle with methamphetamine, expressed negative emotions towards
her during his visit. Despite his young age, Nathan’s grandmother described how his
feelings of abandonment manifested during visitation:
I noticed that he’s not loving with her. It reminds of, like, ‘okay that’s enough’.
She’s grabbing him and she’s kissing him. He pushes back at her. I don’t know if
he’s too young to know this, but maybe he’s protecting himself because he knows
the drill. I don’t know how far back he remembers but he knows that she hasn’t
been in his life so I’m thinking that he doesn’t want to get hurt. He doesn’t know
how long this is going to last until she disappears again. Then I start seeing him
getting depressed.
In a similar vein, Carrie—a 15-year-old White youth—was placed with her grandmother
by the state due to neglect stemming from her mother’s lengthy substance abuse and
mental health history. Given this, Carrie’s relationship with her mother has become
highly strained. Carrie often lashes out at her mother during prison visitation. Her
grandmother described her adverse reactions to visits:
There has been times when Carrie’s anger has surfaced, and she’ll yell and scream
and get out her emotions. She says terrible things to her mother for leaving her.
She’ll carry on. Most of the time, up at the prison, if [my granddaughter] just
looks angry they give her a warning [because she will get kicked out]
Other children were reported by caregivers to respond to prison visitation with both
internalized and externalized behavior, as in the case of Alexis—a 10-year-old Latina
who has been in the care of her grandparents for most of her life given her mother’s
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ongoing struggle with addiction. Alexis’ grandmother explained how these strained
parental attachments resulted in miscommunication during visitation. Also noted by her
grandmother, Alexis exhibited withdrawn behavior and had the tendency to “act out”
upon interacting one-on-one with her incarcerated mother. Alexis’ grandmother describes
these responses:
She’s very quiet. That’s kind of scary sometimes, you know. Yeah, [Alexis] is
real quiet. I mean, she holds her emotions in, you know. I don’t know what they
say after they go outside and we don’t ask them. When [Alexis] starts getting
fidgety or starts acting up, we ask her what happened or what was said or what
answer she didn’t like [from her mom].
On the other hand, some children were noted to developmentally regress in response to
prison visits with their incarcerated parent. In these cases, maternal or paternal
attachments were strained often due to sporadic prior parental involvement. In these
cases, the child appeared to revert to “baby-like” behavior in an attempt to re-bond with
his or her parent. Caregivers of these children characterized such behavior negatively and
as deeply concerning. For instance, the aunt of a 15-year-old White youth named James
explained the pattern of developmental regression she witnessed during James’ visits
with his incarcerated mother:
It’s just a completely inappropriate relationship. She’s always rubbing his back
and he was just completely different than how he normally is the six years he
lived with us. Like giggly and more immature, because he’s very mature for his
age, even at nine, he always was. He is very smart. He turned fifteen last October
but he was acting shy, like a little kid, as if he was five or something. His
behavior at visit is so bizarre.
Finally, in other cases, the visitation experience itself reinforces the parent’s inconsistent
presence in the child’s life, thereby sparking adverse emotional responses. For these
children, the interaction with their parent during a visit is positive; once the visitation
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hours are over, however, previous feelings of abandonment may be triggered. For sevenyear-old Lorena—a Latina experiencing paternal incarceration—her father’s immersion
into gang life meant he spent most of his time on the streets and away from home before
his incarceration. Lorena’s father had lived in the grandmother’s home but his later
sporadic presence in her life strained her previously strong parental attachments. In
consideration of these dynamics, Lorena’s grandmother explained her granddaughter’s
emotional reactions to prison visits with her father:
It was horrible. And that’s why I’m glad I didn’t take them that often because that
was more hurtful than [my granddaughter] not seeing him. Dealing with her on
the way back home, she would cry herself to sleep.
Alternatively, some children were highly attached to their imprisoned mother or
father. As previously mentioned, 44% (n=8) of children whose reactions to visitation
were attributed to parental attachment were described by caregivers as responding
positively to the visit encounter. For instance, Stacey—a 13-year-old White youth—who
was described by her caregiver as having a strong relationship with her father before his
incarceration, responded well to visitation:
Well, we always have a good visit when we go. We had a food visit and [Stacey]
liked that. We found out what he’d like to eat and took it down but I wish he was
closer to see him more often because the kids need that. They have a good
relationship and it’s always a good visit. She can’t wait to go see him, she gets so
excited.
Another caregiver of a 13-year-old African American boy explained how visiting a parent
to whom a child is highly attached is less “traumatic” than visiting a parent who has a
strained relationship with the child:

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He loves his dad. And he’s like, ‘I’ll be glad when dad gets out’. It’s not the
same as with his mother because you can see the difference from when she has a
visit and doesn’t come back the next day. You can see the trauma that he goes
through from seeing her versus seeing his dad. He’s like, ‘dad’s getting out soon,
you know, we’re going to go and take pictures on this day’. It’s not as much
trauma because [dad] has been there more than [mom] has been there.
For some families experiencing paternal incarceration, children met their fathers for the
first time in the prison visitation room. These caregivers described visitation as an overall
positive experience for the children in that the child finally can have a “relationship with
their dad”. For instance, Hannah—a seven-year-old White girl—was introduced to her
father in prison as a toddler, as her mother was pregnant when he was first incarcerated.
Hannah’s mother discussed her adjustment to the penal environment while developing
parental attachments at the same time:
At first, she was really standoffish. When she was really little it was weird for her,
I think, she didn’t really understand, but as she got bigger, I think she was okay
with visiting almost because she didn’t know any different and I was really big on
talking about him a lot. I showed her pictures of him a lot and I made sure that
she knew who he was and that he loved her, even if he did make a mistake. When
he was in Tucson, we got to visit every weekend. So, she’s fine now.
Despite the powerful influence of institutional context on how children responded
to parental visitation, levels of parental attachments cannot be ignored (Poehlmann et al.,
2008). Many of these parents’ relationships with their children are highly complex and
tumultuous given the multitude of challenges endured by these vulnerable family systems
(Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Turanovic et al., 2012). As such, the visit encounter itself
often reignited many unresolved prior conflicts, which frequently resulted in negative
emotional and behavioral child responses. Still, for some children high levels of parental
attachment shielded them from a negative visitation experience in that these children
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were able to reconnect and bond with their imprisoned parent and know that their parent
is safe. Unfortunately, however, many of these children’s parental attachments were
strained, thereby provoking negative reactions to prison visits with incarcerated mothers
and fathers among the majority of children.
Conclusion
To summarize, 65% (n=26) of the 40 children in the sample demonstrated
negative emotional and behavioral responses to prison visitation with an incarcerated
parent. Typical responses included emotional outbursts, withdrawn behavior, anger,
anxiety and developmental regression. On the other hand, caregivers cited positive
reactions to parental prison visitation for only 35% of children. Frequent responses
included excitement and improved behavior and attitudes. In line with prior studies
(Christian, 2005; Casey-Acevado et al., 2004) and consistent with Arditti’s (2012)
theoretical notion of the visitation paradox, thematic content analyses uncovered
institutional contextual factors and levels of parental attachments prompted child
responses. Direct support was not found for pre-incarceration stressors or child age, as
explored in research questions two and three.
The majority of children’s reactions to parental prison visitation were influenced
by the institutional context (73%; n=29). Grounded in a secondary prisonization
framework, correctional environments that were unwelcoming to visitors and employed
invasive policies and procedures for visitors resulted in adverse emotional and behavioral
responses in children (Arditti, 2003; 2005; 2012; Comfort, 2008; Christian, 2005). In
contrast, children tended to respond more positively when correctional units were less
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restrictive and family-friendly, which was often the case in minimum security units as
visitors to these units were able to have a greater degree of interpersonal contact, were
subjected to fewer search protocols and were provided with special opportunities to
connect and interact with the incarcerated parent (e.g., food visit day). Unfortunately,
though, caregivers cited such climates far less frequently.
Additionally, parental attachments were found to shape reactions to prison
visitation among 45% (n=18) of children. As expected from an attachment perspective
(Bowlby, 1969; 1973), children with weak maternal or paternal attachments often
responded negatively to their interaction with their parent during visitation—which was
the case for the vast majority of these children. Sadly, this finding likely stems from the
complicated dynamics present in many of these vulnerable family systems (Tasca et al.,
2011; Turanovic et al., 2012). Alternatively, strong parental attachments resulted in
positive responses to visits for some children. These families were able to maintain
relationships through prison visitation as visits provided an important context for bonding
and connection (Poehlmann, 2005b; Poehlmann et al., 2008). For other children, the
positive visitation experience stemmed from meeting their father for the first time. In
these instances, parental relationships were often free from any pre-incarceration baggage
that strained many other prisoners’ relationships with their children (Nesmith & Ruhland,
2008; Roy & Dyson, 2005).
In short, while the institutional context was the most influential in determining
emotional and behavioral responses of children who visit an imprisoned parent, parental
attachments were undoubtedly important as well. It is important to note that visitation
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paradox factors are very much intertwined as neither contextual factors nor parental
attachment occur in isolation. Even more, nearly 18% of caregivers attributed children’s
responses to parental prison visitation to both contextual factors and levels of attachment.
The most positive child reactions were found in children visiting in child-sensitive
environments with high levels of parental attachment, as perceived by caregivers.
Alternatively, the most negative child responses were linked by caregivers to visiting in
stressful settings and interacting with parents in which attachments were greatly strained.
When the institutional context was described by caregivers as highly negative for
children, this tended to trump the influence of parental attachment in children’s perceived
responses. In contrast, when the institutional context was positive or at a minimum,
“neutral”, relationship dynamics between prisoners and children tended to be raised more
often by caregivers in their discussions of child reactions to visitation. Together, these
findings further underscore the complexities posed by imprisonment for prisoners,
caregivers and children.

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Chapter 6
Discussion and Conclusion
This dissertation set out to accomplish two main research objectives. First, I
investigated the effect of caregiver type (i.e. mothers, grandmothers) on the likelihood of
maternal and paternal prison visits. Second, I explored the emotional and behavioral
responses of children who visited an incarcerated parent, relying upon and extending
Arditti’s (2012) theoretical concept of the visitation paradox. This research contributes to
the broader collateral consequences of incarceration literature by focusing on vulnerable
family systems experiencing incarceration, by assessing the circumstances by which they
connect, and the implications of such connections for remaining minor children. After all,
children’s interaction with the penal system is an important—yet understudied—
collateral consequence of mass imprisonment.
In the following, I discuss key findings from analyses and the theoretical and
empirical contributions of the current research. Then, I describe the limitations of this
study, directions for future research and outline the implications of these findings for
correctional policy and practice. Finally, I conclude this chapter with a discussion on the
broader takeaways from this research regarding mass incarceration and what it means for
families.

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The Influence of Caregiver Type on Prison Visitation
Maternal incarceration. As results confirmed, caregiver type was a key
explanatory factor in the likelihood of mother-reported child prison visits (chapter 4).
Among maternal incarceration cases, children in the care of a grandmother were more
likely to be reported to have visited their mother in prison than children residing with
other caregiver types (i.e. fathers, other relatives, non-relatives, state custody). Below I
detail possible reasons why this is the case, drawing upon existing theoretical and
empirical work.
Although not empirically tested, some potential explanations for why
grandmothers are the most probable facilitators of maternal prison visits are likely
grounded in their immense caregiving burdens and unique bonds with these prisoners that
are distinct from other caregiver types (Cecil et al., 2008; Gleeson et al., 2009; Roy &
Dyson, 2005). These aging, overwhelmed, and under resourced grandmothers—who have
often been caring for these children for most of their lives—have been shown to be
uniquely vested in these mothers assuming their parental obligations post-release (Brown
& Bloom, 2009; Denby, 2012; Hanlon et al., 2007). These mothers are most often their
own daughters to whom they are strongly attached and have complicated relationships
(Brown & Bloom, 2009; Gleeson et al., 2009; Hanlon et al., 2007). Thus, I contend that
the finding that grandmothers were more likely to take children to visit their imprisoned
mothers than were other caregivers is potentially a result of grandmothers’ “idealized
expectations” of these women. This likely stems from their own need for reprieve, belief

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that their daughters will change, and desire for resumed mother-child relationships
(Arditti, 2012; Denby, 2012; Hanlon et al., 2007; Roy & Dyson, 2005).
A potential explanation for why other caregivers (i.e. fathers, other relatives, nonrelatives, state) were found to be less likely to facilitate mother-reported child prison
visits than were grandmothers might be rooted in the theoretical construct of the “good
mother”. This is based upon widely held stereotypes about acceptable roles women are to
play in family life (Arditti, 2012). Indeed, societal assumptions surrounding mothering
depict women as self-sacrificing, benevolent and pure. Fitting the typecast of the “crack
mom” is in direct violation of the “good mother” role that women are expected to fulfill
(Arditti, 2012; Zatz, 2000).
Subsequently, fathers, other relatives and non-relatives may be less likely to
facilitate prison visits in an effort to protect children from their “bad” mother while also
punishing the woman for violating these societal norms. For children in the care of the
state, similar assumptions by courts and legislatures of these women as “unfit” mothers
are often made sometimes resulting in termination of parental rights (Lenox, 2011;
Kruttscnitt, 2011). Of course, grandmothers are not immune from such societal values
involving mothering; however, in light of prior work, I posit that grandmothers have a
vested interest in maintaining mother-child connections via prison visitation given their
own set of needs and the fact that these incarcerated parents are, after all, usually their
daughters (Cecil et al., 2008; Hanlon et al., 2007).
Several other child situational factors, parent stressors, and institutional barriers
also influenced whether children were reported by incarcerated mothers to have visited
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their mother in prison. With respect to child situational factors, prior parental
involvement was found to be significantly associated with the likelihood of maternalreported prison visits. Specifically, children whose mothers were more involved in their
daily lives (i.e. living together, providing daily care, financial support) were more likely
to be reported to have visited their mothers than children whose mothers were less
involved. This finding is consistent with prior work that suggests that children who are
strongly bonded with their mother before her imprisonment are more likely to visit her in
prison, considering that visitation is a key opportunity to maintain parental bonds during
incarceration (Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002; Poehlmann, 2003; Poehlmann, 2005b).
Parent stressors that affected the likelihood of maternal prison visits included
parental rights termination, offense type, and sentence length. Consistent with prior work,
children were less likely to visit a mother whose parental rights had been terminated by a
court than children whose mothers still had their rights to their children, according to
maternal reports (Kruttschnitt, 2011). In these cases, a court order may have been issued
that prohibited the mother from having contact with her children. Although some
caregivers may choose to violate the judge’s order—as ADC would be unaware of this
family court order—these instances are likely the exception and not the rule.
In other instances when maternal rights were severed, the child may have been the
victim in their mother’s case that led to her incarceration. In this case, Arizona
Department of Corrections (ADC) policy would not permit the child—the victim—to
visit his or her mother in prison. Given that all visitors must undergo an approval process
prior to visiting, the screening of potential victims would be conducted during this initial
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approval review. It is important to reiterate, however, that a family court-order
prohibiting parent-child contact would be unknown to ADC if the child was not the
victim in the mother’s offense in which she was convicted. Parental rights termination,
then, in some cases might be thought of as an institutional barrier as well as a parent
stressor in the context of prison visitation.
In addition, children whose mothers were violent offenders were less likely to be
reported by mothers to have visited than were children whose mothers were property
offenders—consistent with previous research (Fuller, 1993). It could be the case that the
child was the victim of the violent offense; or the child’s caregiver may be apprehensive
about the mother’s violent history and therefore restrict contact. An alternate explanation
could be that mothers convicted of violent crimes are housed in higher security units that
make visitation more difficult for caregivers and children to navigate. It is important to
note that within the Arizona Department of Corrections, violent offenders can be housed
in medium, close or maximum-security units—determined by classification scores based
on numerous factors. Violent offenders are prohibited from being housed in minimumsecurity units, however.
Likewise, children whose mothers were drug offenders were also less likely to be
reported to have visited than were children whose mothers were property offenders. This
finding is expected in light of prior work that shows the strain that maternal drug use can
have on family ties (Greene et al., 2000; Owen, 1998; Phillips et al., 2006). Indeed, it
may be that the mother’s prior drug use resulted in neglectful treatment of the child

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and/or weakened familial bonds to such a degree that prison visitation is undesired by
children and/or caregivers.
In line with prior research, sentence length also affected the likelihood of
maternal-reported prison visitation, although the direction of that relationship has varied
across studies (Bales & Mears, 2008; Fuller, 1993). In the current analyses, it was found
that as prison sentences increased in length, the likelihood of maternal prison visitation
also increased. This finding is likely a result of families’ attempts at maintaining parental
attachments in light of a mother’s extended absence from her children. In other words,
there may be concerns among family members in cases where a mother is serving a
lengthy imprisonment term that her children will “forget” her, thus visitation may be
more likely in these instances.
Finally, two institutional barriers influenced the probability of maternal prison
visits: geographic distance and prisoner security level. Consistent with previous research,
children who resided within 101 miles from the sole female correctional facility in
Arizona were more likely to be reported by mothers to have visited than those children
who lived farther away (Arditti, 2003; Casey-Acevedo & Bakken, 2002). This was
unsurprising considering the time, money and access to transportation that is needed to
visit a prisoner.
Lastly, children of mothers who were housed in a minimum-security unit were
more likely to be reported to have visited than children whose mothers were housed in
medium, close or maximum-security units. This was anticipated in that higher security
units employ more invasive visitation protocols, perhaps dissuading some caregivers
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from taking children to visit (Arditti, 2012; Christian, 2005; Comfort, 2008; Hairston,
2003). It is important, however, to clarify the implications of this finding pertaining to
prisoner security level and that of offense type. As explained earlier in this dissertation,
prisoner classification scores are based on multiple criteria (e.g., criminal history,
institutional behavior, inmate needs, gang affiliation) and not solely a result of offense
type. That is, minimum-security inmates are not all drug or property offenders just as
violent offenders are not all maximum-security offenders.
Paternal incarceration. As hypothesized in light of prior work, children had a
higher probability of being reported by incarcerated fathers to have visited when their
primary caregiver was a mother rather than another caregiver (i.e. other relative, nonrelative, state custody) (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008; Roy & Dyson, 2005). A possible
theoretical explanation for this finding can be drawn from research on romantic and
family relationships among disadvantaged parents. To explain, in inner-city communities
where imprisonment is rampant, men who are consistently present and engaged as fathers
are scarce (Edin & Nelson, 2013; Roy & Burton, 2007). Despite this unfortunate reality,
the mothers of these men’s children often maintain traditional fathering expectations with
respect to providing care and financial support (Edin & Nelson, 2013; Roy & Dyson,
2005). Regrettably, such expectations often go unmet and these women have little control
in altering these dynamics.
Once a father is incarcerated, however, the power dynamics between the mother
of the children and the father shift (Swanson et al., 2013). In exchange for economic and
social support while in prison, these mothers can initiate a relationship between their
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children and their children’s father through visitation, while potentially laying out
expectations for fatherhood post-release (Cecil et al., 2008; Day et al., 2005). While the
children, mothers and prisoners connect during visitation, a sense of ‘home’ and ‘family’
is often created which can give rise to “idealized expectations” of these men as fathers
and/or partners (Comfort, 2008; Roy & Dyson, 2005). In consideration of the criminal
histories of these fathers, the low rate of marriage and relationship stability among the
incarcerated population (Edin & Nelson, 2013), I contend that the reasons highlighted
above, which are grounded in prior work, might account for why mothers were the more
likely facilitators of father-reported child prison visitation relative to non-parent
caregivers.
Similar to that of maternal incarceration cases, a potential interpretation of why
other caregiver types (i.e. other relatives, non-relatives, state custody) were less likely to
facilitate paternal prison visits than were mothers might also reflect the “good mother”
hypothesis. That is, children experiencing paternal incarceration, who are not in the care
of their mothers, are experiencing dual parental absence. For children residing with nonparent caregivers, it can be argued that efforts to facilitate parental contact will first be
targeted towards the absent mother rather than the incarcerated father in light of the
“good mother” role that women are expected to play (Arditti, 2012; Zatz, 2000).
The same case can be made for children in foster care. Indeed, child welfare
systems are mostly women-centered such that parental obligations largely fall on the
shoulders of mothers (Lenox, 2011; Swann & Sylvester, 2006). Given the high rate of
uninvolved fathers in children’s lives, father-child prison contact is arguably an unlikely
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priority for non-mother caregivers. While not empirically tested directly, I posit that these
reasons may theoretically explain the relationship between caregiver type and paternalreported prison visits.
Among the various child situational factors, parent stressors and institutional
barriers included in the logistic regression model, only prior parental involvement was
found to be a significant predictor of father-child prison visits. Specifically, children
whose fathers were more involved in their lives before imprisonment (e.g., living
together, daily care, financial support) were more likely to be reported to have visited
their fathers in prison than children whose fathers were less involved. In these cases,
fathers were likely in relationships with the children’s mothers and served more
“traditional” fathering roles (e.g., breadwinner). As such, maintaining familial
connections through prison visitation is a means by which the family can remain intact
during the imprisonment period (Christian, 2005; Christian & Kennedy, 2011; Hairston,
2003).
Among the child demographics included in the model as controls, race/ethnicity
emerged as significantly associated with the probability of paternal-reported prison
visitation. In particular, results revealed that Latino/a children and American Indian
children were less likely to be reported to have visited than were African American
children (there were no statistically significant differences between White and African
American children). Although the focus of this analysis was not on race, I put forth
several potential explanations that might account for these findings that future research
should explore.
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Specifically, I attribute these findings to likely differences in visitation eligibility
and commuting distances. For instance, in order to visit an inmate in the Arizona
Department of Corrections, the visitor (children included) must show a governmentissued form of identification (e.g., driver’s license, passport, permanent resident alien
card). For undocumented caregivers and/or children, then, visiting a prisoner is not
possible. Thus, this may be a reason why Latino/as children were less likely to visit their
fathers than African Americans.
For American Indian children, on the other hand, their lower likelihood of
visitation compared to African Americans may be attributed to particularly far
commuting distances from respective Native American reservations. While there are
tribal lands throughout Arizona, the largest tribe in the entire country—the Navajo
Nation—resides along the northern Arizona border. This reservation is particularly
remote and is located quite far from ADC prison complexes. To put this in perspective,
the Navajo Indian reservation is located approximately 300 miles from the city of
Florence, Arizona that is home to multiple male prison complexes. And, the Navajo
Nation is located more than 450 miles from the prison complexes in the southern portion
of the state. Coupled with the high level of economic disadvantage among this
population, this may account for why American Indian children were less likely to visit a
father in prison than were African American children. Future research should investigate
these race effects more closely; and in particular, examine interactions among
race/ethnicity and key variables of interest.

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In sum, although a number of studies exist on the relationship dynamics between
prisoners and their adult visitors, there has been limited research conducted on parental
prison visitation (Turney, 2014). In an effort to fill that void, this study was able to
identify specific family systems most likely to engage in prison visits with incarcerated
mothers and fathers—critical to reentry efforts. After controlling for a host of child
situational factors, child demographics, parent stressors, and institutional barriers, results
revealed that grandmothers (during maternal incarceration) and mothers (during paternal
incarceration) were the most likely facilitators of prisoner-reported prison visitation
relative to other caregivers. This finding was in line with expectations as the unique
attachments between certain types of caregivers (i.e. grandmothers, mothers) and
prisoners—which may be lacking among other respective caregiver types—might
account for why grandmothers and mothers were the most likely to facilitate maternal
and paternal prison visits. It should be pointed out, however, that for children in state
placements, prison visitation with parents may not be have been permitted or feasible.
Considered together, these results provide valuable insight into which children, and under
what circumstances, interact with the penal system.
Child Responses to Prison Visitation
As revealed in analyses of caregiver reports of child responses and detailed
accounts that followed (chapter 5), children’s reactions to parental prison visitation were
overwhelmingly negative. In fact, nearly two-thirds of children demonstrated negative
responses to the visitation encounter, as perceived by caregivers. Visitation responses
were largely expressed through strong emotional reactions (e.g., anger, excessive crying,
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depression, anxiety), although some children exhibited negative behavioral responses as
well (e.g., acting out). Among the roughly one-third of children who displayed positive
reactions to visiting an imprisoned parent, caregivers described children as excited, wellbehaved, and having a positive attitude.
Thematic content analyses were conducted to capture major themes that
accounted for child responses based on caregiver accounts. In particular, I was interested
in investigating the role of visitation paradox factors (e.g., parental attachment, secondary
prisonization) in how children fared with respect to parental prison visitation. Second, I
explored the influence of pre-incarceration life circumstances (e.g., stressors) on how
children responded to interaction with a parent in the prison setting. And lastly, I assessed
potential age-graded effects in children’s reactions to parental prison visits.
Support was found for Arditti’s (2012) theoretical notion of the visitation
paradox, in that both the institutional context and parental attachment accounted for how
children who visited their parent in prison fared. In fact, nearly 18% of children’s
responses were attributed by caregivers to be linked to both context and attachment.
While both factors were undoubtedly important and very much overlap, the institutional
context surfaced as the most influential, however.
To illustrate, among 40 children, 73% of responses were attributed by caregivers
to institutional factors—consistent with the secondary prisonization perspective and other
previous work (Christian, 2005; Comfort, 2008). Out of these cases, 69% of children
demonstrated negative responses whereas only 31% of children responded positively to
the visit. Specific institutional factors that accounted for these responses by caregivers
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included fear of the prison environment (e.g., barbed wire fences, loud metal gates),
invasive security procedures (e.g., search canines), stern staff and limited interpersonal
contact.
On the other hand, 45% of the 40 children in the sample displayed reactions to
prison visits that were explained by levels of parental attachment. Among these cases,
56% of children responded negatively and 44% responded positively to the visit, based
on caregiver reports. Children who had strained parental attachments tended to respond
negatively to the visit encounter whereas children who had strong parental attachments
often reacted positively. Parental attachment was typically attributed by caregivers to the
level of prior involvement and closeness between children and their parent before
incarceration. In light of the complicated dynamics experienced by many of these
vulnerable family systems (Giordano, 2010; Turanovic et al., 2012), it is of no surprise
that many children had difficulty coping with these strained parental attachments and
subsequently reacted negatively when face-to-face with their parent in the visiting room.
In summary, I set out to broadly explore children’s reactions to parental prison
visitation. In conducting my investigation, I captured all behavioral and emotional
responses exhibited by children in response to the visit, as reported by their primary
caregivers. Given my theoretical focus on the visitation paradox (Arditti, 2012), I made
no assumptions about whether children would respond positively or negatively to prison
visitation. My results revealed, however, that children reacted overwhelmingly
negatively.

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The two key factors that accounted for this finding were the institutional context
and parental attachments, lending support to prior work (Arditti, 2012; Christian &
Kennedy, 2011; Comfort, 2008; Poehlmann et al., 2008). Although I extended this
paradox to include child age and pre-incarceration stressors, these factors did not emerge
as significant in terms of affecting how children responded to prison visitation. Overall,
these results illustrate the power of context and family relations—that are highly
interrelated and dynamic in nature—in shaping children’s reactions to the visiting
experience.
Theoretical Contributions
This research makes several key theoretical contributions to the broader collateral
consequences of incarceration literature. An important theoretical dimension of this
dissertation is its focus on diverse family systems. The majority of previous studies have
examined the consequences of imprisonment for individual children or prisoners (either
on paternal children or on African American men), but have not fully considered how
these individuals’ embeddedness within highly complicated family systems might shape
various outcomes. In contrast, I found that children from certain types of family systems
were more likely to have contact with an imprisoned parent, and subsequently have
exposure to the penal environment. Moreover, my research further illustrated how the
types of family systems most likely to visit varied by the gender of the imprisoned parent.
As such, taking a family approach to research on the consequences of imprisonment can
shed important light on how outcomes might differ across individuals.

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An additionally significant theoretical contribution of this research is my ability to
understand family life before imprisonment (e.g., prior parental involvement, parental
stressors) and what it means for family connectedness during incarceration—all of which
has implications for family functioning after imprisonment. Existing research has rarely
been able to comprehensively capture pre-incarceration factors that allow researchers to
situate in-prison contact within broader family dynamics and circumstances (Phillips et
al., 2006; Tasca et al., 2014). In so doing, I was able to more systematically assess the
circumstances under which parental prison visitation occurs and its impact on children.
Furthermore, my focus on prison visitation allowed for insight into the functioning of
vulnerable families most affected by crime and imprisonment during a key period of
parental absence about which we know relatively little.
My empirical test of the visitation paradox (Arditii, 2012) in assessing children’s
responses to parental prison visitation also advances theory in several key respects. First,
by including elements from both attachment and secondary prisonization perspectives,
this research was able to form an interdisciplinary bridge between human development
and criminology. For example, it is necessary to consider that children who visit are
embedded within families—with varying levels of parental attachments—that are
interacting with parents within correctional contexts. And as was revealed by my
findings, both secondary prisonization and attachment elements mattered, thereby
illustrating how an interdisciplinary theoretical approach is an important contribution to
this line of inquiry.

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Second, not only did I empirically test Arditti’s (2012) theoretical concept of the
visitation paradox, I was able to extend it in my examination of how children who visited
an imprisoned parent fared. Specifically, my analysis included an examination of preincarceration life circumstances and child age, which advanced both attachment and
secondary prisonization perspectives, even though these factors were not found to be
empirically significant. Attachment theory traditionally assumes that parents (mostly
focused on mothers) and children are inherently closely bonded (Bowlby, 1969; 1973;
1980) and, as a result, prison visitation is positive for children in that visits can ease the
trauma associated with parental separation (Poehlmann, 2005b). As was revealed in my
findings, however, levels of parental attachments varied significantly across children and
imprisoned parents. Given that children’s relationships with these prisoners are often
highly complicated by pre-incarceration stressors and circumstances, it is theoretically
important to incorporate these factors into an attachment framework.
Finally, I was able to advance the secondary prisonization framework (Clemmer,
1958; Comfort, 2008; Sykes, 1958) through the inclusion of child age. Traditionally, a
secondary prisonization perspective posits that visitors’ exposure to the prison context is
inherently negative, in that visitors are transformed by the punitive nature of the
institution (Comfort, 2008). Under this line of reasoning, then, children visiting an
imprisoned parent would react negatively to visits given their exposure to this
environment. Theoretically, however, there was reason to believe that children—
depending upon their stage of development—might have responded to the penal
environment differently (Poehlmann et al., 2008). As such, child age is a significant
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theoretical addition to the secondary prisonization perspective even though age-effects
were not uncovered empirically.
Empirical Contributions
There are several empirical strengths of this study that are worth noting. First, I
examined data collected from a representative sample of incarcerated parents. This is
important in that the majority of data collected from incarcerated parents are drawn from
convenience samples (e.g., inmates in one unit, inmates participating in a specific
program). Rather, these data come from a randomly identified sample of male and female
prisoners who self-identified as being the parent of at least one minor child. This resulted
in a group of incarcerated mothers and fathers who varied across classification level,
criminal history, sentence length, and other key demographics. Similarly, caregivers
(sampled from prisoner reports) also varied across relationship to children, caregiving
experiences, and other important characteristics. Over 90% of prisoners and caregivers,
who were contacted participated in the study, which further adds to the strength of these
data.
Additionally, I was able to examine the likelihood of parental prison visits and
their impact on children using data from two different raters (i.e. prisoners, caregivers)
and using two distinctive methods. Considering the complexities of these family systems,
examining data from both prisoners and caregivers strengthens the current analyses.
Likewise, the ability to examine a large dataset that contained a comprehensive set of
variables including child situational factors, parent stressors, and institutional measures
among children of incarcerated mothers and fathers (reported by prisoners) in predicting
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parental prison visitation is an important empirical contribution. Indeed, most research
does not include both maternal and paternal incarceration cases, pre-incarceration life
circumstances and institutional factors in the same study. Lastly, the qualitative data used
in my analyses provided rich, detailed caregiver accounts on children’s emotional and
behavioral responses to visits with imprisoned parents. This method provided nuanced
insight into institutional and familial processes—as well as their intersections—that
might have been missed if caregivers were bound by categorical responses, particularly
considering that so little is known about children’s experiences with prison visitation.
Limitations
As with all research, there are several limitations to this study that must be noted.
First, I was unable to capture prison visitation among incarcerated fathers during the
current prison term. As discussed in-depth in chapter 3, men were interviewed at intake
and therefore were not yet eligible for visits at the time of data collection. As a result,
fathers who had served a prior imprisonment term in ADC were asked about visitation
with their children during their most recent prior incarceration. Considering the limited
research on paternal prison visitation, tapping into father-child prison visits—even during
a prior term—is still undoubtedly important. At the same time, however, not being able to
account for whether or not 43% of fathers in the sample who were serving their first
prison sentence received visits from their children is a limitation of the current study.
This is true in light of potential differences between these two groups of fathers that may
affect the probability of visitation. As revealed in the methods chapter (see footnote #5), I
compared fathers with prior prison histories to those who were serving their first terms
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across multiple characteristics. Fathers who had served at least one prior prison term (the
171 fathers of the 300 fathers included in the present analysis) were less likely to have
committed a public order offense, more likely to be property offenders, slightly older, and
were more likely to be African American than those fathers without prior prison records.
Children may be more likely to visit a father who is serving his first prison stint
relative to children whose father has been in and out of the prison system. This might be
due to the possibility that the extent of a father’s criminal justice system involvement
impacts the strength of parental attachments. While I did not find that the number of
prison terms served among previously incarcerated fathers affected whether or not
children visited, differences may exist between first-time and repeat offenders.
Accordingly, future research should be expanded to consider paternal visitation patterns
among incarcerated fathers with or without prior prison histories.
A second limitation to this study is that these data do not contain a continuous
measure of prison visitation (Cochran & Mears, 2013). While prisoners were asked about
the frequency of child visitation using an ordinal scale (i.e. never, daily, weekly, at least
once per month, less than once per month), there was insufficient variation to assess
parent-child visitation patterns (see footnote #9 in chapter 3). Similarly, patterns of prison
visitation were not systematically captured in caregiver accounts of children’s visitation
reactions. Moreover, asking prisoners or caregivers to recall visitation frequency is
arguably less reliable than official records that were unfortunately unavailable. In any
event, whether or not children visit their imprisoned parents is an important question, but

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understanding which children visit often also needs to be examined as visitation
frequency could be related to how children respond to visits.
Third, these data were collected from interviews with two different raters (i.e.
prisoners and caregivers). Although desirable in several respects, as discussed earlier,
there are limitations to relying upon self-report data from these sources. For instance, in
the quantitative analyses on the likelihood of prison visitation, data came from interviews
with incarcerated parents that were based upon prisoners’ knowledge of their children’s
whereabouts and status, which may not have been as accurate or up-to-date as caregiver
reports would have been. In addition, to capture prison visitation, we relied upon
prisoners’ abilities to recall visitation patterns with their children—a particular challenge
among incarcerated fathers referring to their prior confinement period. Unfortunately,
however, at the time of data collection, an official visitation measure was not
systematically and electronically available from ADC.
Likewise, qualitative analyses on children’s responses to prison visits relied upon
data comprised from caregiver accounts. Caregiver perceptions of child reactions to
parental visitation may have differed from those of the children themselves. Furthermore,
it is unknown if or how caregiver’s own feelings towards visitation might have
influenced the responses of the children. Interviewing children who visit their
incarcerated parents directly could help to identify any potential discrepancies between
caregiver and child perceptions of children’s reactions to prison visitation. Still, the adult
“outsider” perspective of the caregiver is an undoubtedly important one.

137

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
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It is important to point out, though, that there are trade-offs in the use of different
data sources and there are varying norms across disciplines with respect to this process.
For instance, our ability to collect data from two raters (i.e. prisoners and caregivers)
allowed for valuable insight into family life during parental imprisonment from two
distinct perspectives using two distinct methods—which is relatively rare in the field of
criminology. Interviewing prisoners and caregivers enabled us to collect information on
children across all age groups; that would not have been possible if we interviewed
children directly (e.g., toddlers). Also, the interviewing of children enacts unique
institutional review board requirements in which the dialogue with the children might not
have been able to be as encompassing as was the case with prisoner interviews or as
open-ended as was the case in caregiver interviews.
Next, with respect to the qualitative analyses on children’s responses to parental
prison visits, this study relied upon a small, purposive sample of 40 children—a subset of
the larger sample. Moreover, given that children in these data are nested within families, I
only included one focal child from each of the selected cases to ensure that children were
the unit of analysis. In so doing, corresponding siblings were excluded from analysis.
While these data provided rich, detailed accounts of the visitation experience and various
life circumstances from the perspective of the caregiver, additional research is needed
using a larger number of children that also compares potential differences in responses to
visitation across siblings.
Finally, the current study is conducted within one state—Arizona. As such, it is
unknown if the results found in these analyses are generalizable to other jurisdictions. For
138

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instance, it is unknown the extent to which the visitation settings, policies or procedures
are similar or distinct from other prison systems. Considering the importance of
secondary prisonization elements in how children responded to parental prison visits in
this study, investigations across prison systems should be conducted to determine if the
effects of the institutional context remains.
Directions for Future Research
Additional research is needed in several key areas to further advance our
theoretical and empirical understanding of the factors associated with, and impact of,
prison visitation for children during parental imprisonment. As noted previously, future
studies should include continuous measures of prison visitation between mothers, fathers
and their children to identify patterns of contact. Similarly, research is needed that can
situate each visitation event within the confinement timeline (e.g., visits early in prison
term, visits near release, consistent visits throughout prison term) (see Cochran, 2014;
Cochran & Mears, 2013). Identifying patterns of parental prison visitation and
determining under what circumstances such patterns occur can shed important light on
various child outcomes but also on prisoner-specific outcomes such as misconduct, wellbeing and recidivism.
Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that prisoners who receive visits from
adult partners or family members during specific time points during incarceration are less
likely to engage in inmate misconduct, have improved psychological well-being and are
less likely to recidivate (Cochran, 2012; Cochran, Mears, Bales & Stewart, 2012;
Roxburgh & Fitch, 2013; Tewksbury & DeMichele, 2005). Whether visitation with
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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

children produces similarly positive prisoner outcomes, however, is poorly understood. In
fact, one study revealed that as prison visits from children increased, so did the likelihood
of prisoner recidivism, although the authors noted that the reasons for this are unclear
(Bales & Mears, 2008). It may be that when prisoners are visited often by their children
and their children’s caregiver, the promises made by the prisoner during these visits may
be too great for him or her to keep upon release. Subsequently, the pressure of these
“idealized expectations” may contribute to his or her subsequent return to prison. In
consideration of these possibilities, future research that taps into the nature and
consequences of expectations placed on these incarcerated parents is very much needed.
Moreover, additional studies should examine the effect of visitation on the
likelihood of parent-child reunification. Such an inquiry will provide important insight
into how parental connections during imprisonment impact family life post-incarceration.
In some cases, visitation may have provided an opportunity to resolve prior conflicts and
a chance to bond with children, thereby strengthening family relationships in reentry.
Alternatively, caregivers—in their role as gatekeepers—may become aware during
visitation encounters of the numerous challenges that lie ahead for the prisoner upon
release and thus discourage parental reunification. An entirely separate hypothesis
involves the possibility that, for some families, parent-child contact might only take place
behind prison walls in that this may be the only time the prisoner is willing, sober and
available. In thinking about cases when children met their father for the first time during
imprisonment, it remains to be seen whether contact will continue once the father reenters

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been published by the Department. Opinions or points of view expressed are those of the author(s)
and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

the community. Therefore, the link (or lack thereof) between visitation and post-release
reunification deserves empirical exploration.
More research is also needed on families who don’t visit and the reasons behind
their lack of contact. For instance, some caregivers may have the means to visit but
choose not to, yet the specific motivations behind their decisions are unclear. Further,
criminal records and the undocumented status of caregivers and/or children are real
barriers to prison visitation that we know very little about, which may have important
implications for family functioning. And, among those children who don’t visit, how do
they respond to the lack of contact with their imprisoned parent? Thus, empirical inquiry
into non-visiting families is needed to be able to assess how families who visit fare
relative to those who do not.
Finally, children’s reactions to visitation with an imprisoned parent should be
assessed through multiple methods across multiple institutional contexts. As mentioned
earlier, interviews with children about their own feelings towards visitation should be
used to gather additional knowledge about the way in which visitation impacts children
of incarcerated mothers and fathers. Another method that can be used to assess child
responses is that of observations in the visiting room. Using field observation techniques,
researchers should observe the emotional and behavioral responses of children visiting a
parent. Relying on more than one researcher enhances inter-rater reliability and this
method also eliminates any potential family member bias. Employing numerous data
collection methods in different prison systems (e.g., state prison systems, federal prison
system) across varying security levels (e.g., minimum, medium, maximum) can further
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advance empirical knowledge that is needed to inform evidence-based policy and practice
pertaining to visitation.
Policy Implications
This dissertation research has multiple implications for correctional policy and
practice. First, the current focus on caregiver type in the examination of factors
associated with parent-child prison visitation has identified specific family systems to be
targeted in reentry initiatives. Specifically, for male prisoners who are parents of minor
children, institutional and community correctional systems should make efforts to include
mother caregivers and children in leading up to and during the reentry phase. The same is
true in maternal incarceration cases in which attempts should be made to integrate
grandmother caregivers and children in reentry plans. In order to provide specific
recommendations on how this can be achieved, let me first describe existing reentry
processes.
Six months prior to an inmate’s release from the Arizona Department of
Corrections, a pre-release “packet” that contains information on the inmate’s risk level, as
well as the address where the prisoner will reside upon release, is forwarded to the
designated parole officer who will oversee the prisoner’s community supervision for the
remaining 15% of his or her sentence (given truth-in-sentencing laws). Prior to the
prisoner’s release, the parole officer assigned to the inmate’s case will make a visit to the
address provided by the inmate in his or her pre-release packet—to either approve or
deny the prisoner residing at that address. This visit is the only “contact” that the parole
officer will have with any potential family members because once the inmate is released,
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he or she must report to the parole officer directly as part of supervision (the frequency of
which is determined by level of risk). In addition to the standard rules of avoiding law
enforcement contact, refraining from interacting with other felons and maintaining fulltime employment or enrollment in higher education, the prisoner must submit to random
urinalysis testing, pay a predetermined “fee” to the parole officer and show up to
scheduled meetings to report any changes in status to his or her parole officer. In other
words, there is no “treatment” component or family involvement in community
supervision for Arizona parolees.
Since family support is a key component of successful reentry, it is critical that
the individuals most involved with the prisoner during his or her incarceration are
included in a post-release transition plan. As such, the Arizona Department of
Corrections may want to partner with nonprofit agencies that are equipped to serve the
reentry population with parole officers providing referrals to prisoners, caregivers and
children for family services upon release. Such services might include family counseling,
financial resources and parenting classes.
From a practical perspective, children and caregivers who have visited the
incarcerated parent—relying upon official ADC visitation records—can be used to
identify potential referrals when the prisoner’s pre-release packet is compiled. Prior to the
inmate’s release but after a pre-release packet has been submitted, the parole officer
should attempt to reach out to these caregivers to introduce him or herself and discuss the
services that the family and prisoner can receive upon the prisoner’s release. Having
parole officers meet with and provide family service referrals to these caregivers can
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provide a more personal connection with the prisoner’s broader support network that
likely has a vested interest in the prisoner’s success (regardless if the prisoner is residing
in the caregiver’s home). Including these “stakeholders” in the prisoner’s community
supervision—which would involve a treatment component—may increase the likelihood
of success. Even more, in consideration of the burdens that caregivers carry and the
various expectations placed on prisoners upon release, employing family-centric
interventions has the potential to enhance family functioning, thereby enabling prisoners
and their families to cope more successfully with the realities of life after incarceration.
Although such reentry efforts are essential, financial and therapeutic resources
directed at caregivers and children during parental incarceration are also needed.
Grandmother and mother caregivers of children of incarcerated parents are often the most
strained of all caregiver types (Denby, 2012; Geller et al., 2011; Hanlon et al., 2007). As
such, funds should be allocated to serve these specific family systems, even for
temporary periods of time. For instance, the State of Arizona used to provide
grandparents who were raising their grandchildren a small monthly guardianship subsidy
during a parent’s imprisonment. Many grandparent caregivers who participated in this
study discussed how helpful this subsidy was in providing for children’s needs and in
helping to facilitate parental prison contact. Unfortunately, budget cuts have largely
eliminated this benefit for non-foster families. Reinstating and expanding this benefit
could potentially ease the burdens faced by these vulnerable families.
At the same time, financial assistance is not the only resource that caregivers and
children need. As discussed previously, relationships between children, caregivers and
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prisoners are highly complex and are often plagued by a great deal of conflict (Edin &
Nelson, 2013; Owen, 1998; Turanovic et al., 2012). This is evidenced by children’s
adverse reactions to prison visitation attributed to strained parental attachments.
Accordingly, family services are needed to help work through these complexities to
promote healthy family functioning. Unfortunately, the prison visitation room is often
families’ only opportunity to confront these issues, and these interactions occur in the
absence of any formal intervention. A possible policy solution to address this includes
making counseling services available through nonprofit organizations or through
agreements between Medicaid and private counseling agencies for families during
parental incarceration. Thus, targeting family systems during and after incarceration
could potentially lead to improved outcomes.
Other policy recommendations stemming from this study are specific to the prison
setting. Given the high rate of negative child responses to prison visitation attributed to
the institutional climate, it is important to consider the ways in which visitation could be
more welcoming to families. Such policies might include the training of staff to adopt a
child-sensitive approach to visits and creation of child-friendly visitation rooms in which
age-appropriate books and games are available. On the other hand, policy
recommendations pertaining to security procedures are not as straightforward in that the
use of search canines and metal detectors are central to the safety and security of the
institution. While these procedures may be necessary, staff and visiting rooms that are
child-friendly may reduce some of the anxiety children experience when entering carceral
settings to visit a parent.
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Importantly, this research also contributes to current policy discussions on the use
of video visitation—a key issue in correctional policy today (Visher & Courtney, 2007).
Various prison systems and local jails have implemented video visitation as an alternative
to traditional face-to-face contact. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice has recently
funded a large-scale study that examines the impact of video visitation on various
outcomes in light of the increasing reliance on this technology. This policy is not without
controversy, however. Opponents of video visitation contend that this method of contact
weakens families’ abilities to maintain bonds given shortened visiting times, limited
privacy, and lack of interpersonal contact. Alternatively, advocates of this policy argue
that video visitation reduces the strain on visitors by decreasing commutes and costs
associated with visitation (e.g., gas, money for vending machines) and decrease the
potential for drugs and other contraband from entering correctional facilities.
In light of the results of the current study that found children overwhelmingly
responded negatively to parental prison visitation, video visits might be a desirable option
for families who visit with minor children. To explain, several video visitation “test” sites
could be set up in various locations in order to be an accessible option to visitors across
the state. An evaluation (conducted by independent researchers) could be conducted over
the course of one to two years to gauge how often video visitation is utilized among
visitors as well as assess children’s responses to visits across the two methods. Indeed,
some caregivers who participated in the present study expressed interest in video
visitation given the adverse responses of children to traditional visitation. As such,

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additional research should be conducted to identify prison visitation methods that are the
least harmful to children.
Conclusion
This research contributes theoretically and empirically to the collateral
consequences of incarceration literature by providing a window into the imprisonment
experience for vulnerable families. The bottom line is that a sizeable number of American
families—predominately the most disadvantaged among us—have encountered
incarceration in some way. This study was able to tap into these families’ abilities to
remain connected and how children fare as a result of these connections, thereby
providing valuable insights into family functioning among prisoners, caregivers and
children during confinement.
Ultimately, this dissertation raises pertinent questions surrounding what it means
to have family relationships manifest in prison. For the majority of middle-class
Americans, such a possibility is a foreign concept, a phenomenon that happens to “them”
and not “us”. But for many families in our poorest neighborhoods and barrios, this
experience has become far too common. In some cases, children were meeting their
parent for the first time during prison visitation; in other cases, children were
reconnecting during visits with a parent who had been in and out of their lives for most of
their childhood. On the other hand, there were some children whose parental attachments
to their imprisoned mothers or fathers were strong, and where the parent’s current
incarceration was but a misstep on an otherwise conventional path—but unfortunately
this was more often the exception than the rule.
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A major highlight of this study is the investment many overly burdened mother
and grandmother caregivers put into prisoners through their facilitation of parent-child
prison visits and the largely negative impacts on children that results from such efforts.
Sadly, however, in light of strained familial relationships and in the absence of treatment
resources, the likelihood that the investment of time, energy and money that prison
visitation requires will pay off is slim. What potential long-term impacts of exposure to
parents through the prison system have for young children growing into adolescence and
then adulthood remain unknown.
On a more positive note, there is emerging evidence to suggest that a period of
“mass decarceration” may be underway (Clear & Burrell, 2012). Moreover, some
promising changes to drug policy have also been recently implemented at both state and
federal levels (e.g., legalized marijuana, reduced crack-vs-cocaine sentencing disparities).
The scope of such policy shifts remains to be seen, however. Until then, it is important to
remember, as a caregiver in our sample said it best, prison visitation—the only
opportunity to meaningfully connect during imprisonment—is by no means “cupcakes
and lollipops.”

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and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

 

 

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