The consequences of the prison boom for poor, minority men are almost undeniable. According to recent estimates, about 25 percent of African-American men experience imprisonment by their mid-30s, with rates increasing to 60 percent to 70 percent for African-American men who did not complete high school. Lifetime risks for white men who dropped out of high school are also high—about 15 percent of them are imprisoned at some point—but not even in the same ballpark as the risks for comparable African-American men. To be clear, because of the structural forces working against these men, the deck is stacked against them even if they never enter a prison or jail cell. They may experience racial discrimination, poor labor market prospects, and residence in dangerous neighborhoods. Likewise, some of them probably confront serious challenges that can make it difficult to get ahead, such as depression, poor impulse control, and addiction to drugs or alcohol. Despite the many reasons to expect these men to struggle regardless of incarceration, research shows incarceration further hurts their labor market outcomes, the quality of their relationships with kin and kith, and their long-term health. Being sure that incarceration causes these poor outcomes is tricky. But the evidence surely seems to point in that direction.
Much research on the costs of the prison boom focuses solely on these men. In one regard, this makes good sense. These men are, after all, the ones who will be held in a local jail or a state or federal prison. Likewise, they are the ones whose labor market prospects will suffer, whose romantic relationships might fail, and whose children will inquire about them. Yet in another sense, focusing only on these men misses much of the picture, as their incarceration may also influence the well-being of the women attached to them, including their mental health. The financial well-being of their romantic partners and children suffers as well. Similarly, if men’s romantic relationships suffer or end altogether, then these women also experience the pain of breaking up or the struggle to keep their faltering relationships going. And if the time apart from children is difficult for men, imagine how difficult it is for their children—especially since many of these men might have been inconsistently involved in their children’s lives even before going away. All of these effects may add up to a partner’s incarceration having serious consequences for women’s mental health, as finances and family life strongly affect women’s well-being.
In a recent article (Christopher Wildeman, Jason Schnittker, and Kristin Turney. 2012. “Despair by Association? The Mental Health of Mothers with Children by Recently Incarcerated Fathers.” American Sociological Review 77:216-243), we considered how the incarceration of a father affects mother’s mental health utilizing data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study—a data set that capture the experiences of about 5,000 fathers and mothers, living in American cities, who have children together.
The results were sobering. For these women, the incarceration of their children’s fathers made a bad situation worse. Already at elevated risk of poor mental health for many of the same reasons that the fathers of their children were at risk of incarceration, their mental health took an additional hit as a result of the fathers’ recent incarceration. And this hit was heavy. For the women in our study, having the father of her child incarcerated increased her risk of experiencing major depression by about 25 percent, an especially substantial increase considering how elevated these women’s risk of being depressed would have been even if the fathers of their children had not experienced incarceration. Effects on life dissatisfaction were comparable, suggesting that incarceration increases these women’s risks not just of experiencing a severe mental health condition such as major depression, but also of feeling less good about their lives even if they were not actually depressed.
So what explains this effect? According to our analysis, the very same forces that have received so much attention from those interested in the consequences of incarceration for men explained much of these damaging effects on women’s mental health. The incarceration of a father leads to greater financial instability among mothers, deterioration of their already-vulnerable romantic relationships, and increases in parenting difficulties. These effects, in turn, are associated with mental health. Interestingly, we find that changes in family life—the quality and structure of romantic relationships and the circumstances surrounding parenting their child—rather than the well-documented economic effects of incarceration explain much of this association, suggesting the loss of a father and partner hurts these women’s mental health more than the loss of a paycheck.
As we consider the various costs and benefits of incarceration, our calculator shouldn’t get turned off after we consider its crime-fighting benefits, budgetary costs, and implications for the lives of marginalized young men. Indeed, our results suggest that a potentially even greater cost of incarceration may be how it damages the women and children left in its wake. These hidden costs of the prison boom should be considered, as the mental health of the women and children who face such substantial obstacles already is important for our national wellbeing.