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CHAPTER IV

RESEARCH REPORT N0. 46


EXPLORATIONS IN INMATE-FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS



Norman Holt
Associate Social Research Analyst
Southern Conservation Center


Donald Miller
Associate Social Research Analyst
Los Angeles Research Unit


Research Division
California Department of Corrections
Sacramento, California
January 1972


CHAPTER IV. THE EFFECTS OF IMPRISONMENT ON THE
INMATE'S FAMILY AND SOCIAL TIES

A person's current social relationships represent the aggregate of his social history. Each individual has his own unique network of reciprocal contacts forged out of his past experience. The characteristics of this network reflect the contributions of a great number of factors many of which, if not unique is themselves, are at least unique in their combination. Thus, when social relationships are examined through group data, only the gross factors are likely to stand out. In the current chapter, some of the major effects of incarceration on the inmate's ties with the outside world will be discussed. Some of the mechanisms through which these effects occur will be suggested; but, with the above difficulty in mind, much of this discussion will be speculative.

The act of imprisonment itself has an immediate and dramatic effect on the person's social life. The forced separation, usually a traumatic experience, requires the individual to reorder his relationships. That prison inmates relate to family and friends in different ways than non-inmates is an obvious fact, but these differences are not the present concern. Given the fact of imprisonment, the focus of this chapter is on the effects of its duration. In other words, the question asked is what changes occur in the inmate's relationship with the outside world as he moves through his prison career? This question would be relatively straightforward if all inmates began their institutional stay with the same social patterns. As pointed out above, however, this is not the case, because each new arrival brings to the institution a different set of existing social ties.

Initial Ostracism
One experience which new inmates share and which is thought to have a major effect on social relations is prior involvement with the criminal justice system. At the very least they will all have been through the courts and spent some time in jail for the offense for which they are currently in prison. Most will have had at least some previous experience with the justice system, while for many the current felony charges are simply the latest in a lengthy history of arrests and dispositions.

This prior involvement with the criminal justice system seems to affect the inmate's social relationships in three ways. First, each arrest and conviction brings with it a certain social stigma which would ordinarily make former friends and family less willing to become involved. The extent to which the inmate is ostracized in this way varies with the degree of stigma of the particular crime and the cumulative effect of repeated charges and convictions. There should be a difference between the degree of ostracism experienced by child molesters, drug addicts, and check forgers. Some differences in the extent of ostracism are also related to the different degrees of stigma different groups attach to various crimes. A conviction for possession of marijuana, for example, is viewed lightly by some segments of the population but carries a heavy stigma in others.

This process also seems to work in reverse, as a few inmates attempt to restrict their contact with former friends and family because of shame and guilt over their imprisonment. Some avoid letting their situation be known simply to avoid the negative reactions of friends. In some cases, selected family members or friends may conspire with the inmate to keep his incarceration secret from others and thus restrict his outside contacts. Other friends might be told, for example, that the inmate is working out of state and can't be reached or that his specific address is unknown. In a few extreme cases, the inmate attempts to keep his incarceration secret from all of his family and friends. For the most part, however, new inmates are anxious to maintain as many social ties with the outside world as possible, and it is the people outside who determine the limits of their contacts.

Using Up Favors
Brushes with the law and involvement with the justice system consume considerable resources. Money, often in large sums, is required for bail, lawyer's fees, and incidentals; and friends and relatives are often asked to contribute. They are also frequently asked to run errands, serve as character witnesses, or give testimony in court. Thus, with each arrest, trial, and sentence, the inmate usually has to make heavy demands on his friends and relatives and begins to use up their good will and whatever reciprocal favors he has coming. With this process repeating itself each time the person is arrested, his least loyal friends are likely soon to begin to make themselves unavailable, while even close family members eventually reach a point of no longer responding to his requests for aid. As arrests are repeated, favors and good will are used up, and the rejection (or the freeze out) process begins often with strong feelings on the part of family and friends of being betrayed by his unrealized promise of reform.

Family and friends are sometimes among the direct victims of the inmate's criminal career. Narcotics addicts, and to a lesser extent alcoholics, occasionally steal, cheat, deceive, or defraud family and friends during as emergency to support a habit. The "hype" who periodically resorts to hocking his parents' T.V. set for a fix doesn't exactly endear himself to the family. A deterioration of social relationships, then, is a natural part of certain criminal careers in which the significant others are themselves sometimes victimized.

In summary, there are three processes through which the inmate's prior criminal involvement serves to erode social relationships even before his prison term begins, (1) the stigma associated with his crimes leads to ostracism, (2) he wears out his friends and relations by making repeated demands on their resources as he is arrested and tried for crimes, and (3) his lengthy involvement in certain, types of crimes often includes family and friends among the victims.

Inability to Reciprocate
Once imprisoned, the inmate faces two major barriers to maintaining his social relations with the outside world, (1) his inability to reciprocate certain aspects of relationships, and (2) his inability to replace withering social ties with knew outside relationships. Social relationships are based on reciprocity, but the prisoner is in no position to reciprocate in very significant kinds of ways. It is the rare individual who, from his earnings from hobby work or an institution job, is able to send money home. Typically, the resources flow the other way, with relatives crediting money to the inmate's account each month, arriving on visiting day with a basket of goods, or sending in a heavy Christmas package with all the items allowable. For his part, the inmate is scarcely able to return a birthday greeting or Christmas card. He is incapable of even returning a visit. In correspondence, the news is also apt to flow one way. White the inmate is anxious to learn about what is happening outside, he has little motivation for writing about prison events and is usually officially restricted from mentioning such things as other individuals. Combined with this is the fact that prisons are not very eventful places, and each day bears a close resemblance to the previous one. The inmate is thus in a taking role with little opportunity to return favors.

The removal of the inmate from the community deprives him of the normal opportunity to remold and refurbish his social relations as he moves through his life cycle. Through the normal course of living, one's relationships with family and friends are steadily changing. Old acquaintances fade away, and new friends emerge to take their place. Parents pass on, sisters marry, and friends move ; but the inmate has no way to restructure his relationships following these events. Thus, a long-term inmate might enter prison with a spouse, parents, siblings, and numerous friends but depart with little left but an unusually faithful wife.

The Decrease of Family Contacts with Time Served
To examine the effects of length of imprisonment on social ties, the inmates in the sample were divided into five groups based on the number of years they have been in prison. Factors associated with recidivism were controlled by considering only inmates serving their first prison term. The hypothesis was that if prison has the anticipated deleterious effect on relationships with people on the outside, there should be a steadily increasing percentage of inmates receiving no visitors or correspondence as the years go by and that the average number of outside contacts would drop in a similar manner. The data in Table 12, however, show no such trend. There is little difference between the number of visitors and correspondents or the frequency of such contacts among inmates who have served one, two, three, or four or more years. In fact, a slightly higher percentage of those with two or more years served had such contacts. The effects of time on the patterns of contact seem to vary somewhat with the type of relationship. Slight increases over time in contacts with the parents are indicated in Table 12 and probably with brothers and sisters in the second and third years of confinement. The contacts which are ordinarily most intense, those with spouses, appear to decrease sharply after the first year. Only 21% of those who had served two years or more had wives visiting compared to 37% for the first year. Correspondence follows a similar pattern with 50% of those in their first year receiving mail from wives, while this was true of less than one-third of those with two or more years in prison. In general, however, the pattern of correspondence, like visiting, does not reflect any increasing isolation from people on the outside with the passage of time.

The figures in Table 12 on contacts with wives are difficult to interpret, because an unknown percentage in each group is not married. Therefore, for the further analysis which is presented in Table 13, only those who were known to have been married at admission were selected. The data are presented in ratios because of the small number of cases involved.

Consistent with the data is the previous table, Table 13 shows fewer married men serving their first terms visited by their wives during the third and fourth year, only 53% were still receiving visits by that time, compared to

TABLE 12
FIRST TERM INMATES RECEIVING VISITS
AND MAIL BY RELATIONSHIP AND
MONTHS SERVED IN PRISON
(In Percentages)

Months Served in Prison

Visitors

6 - 11

12 - 23

24 - 35

36 - 47

48+

No Visitors

28%

30%

22%

25%

24%

Median Number

(1)

(1)

(2)

(2)

(2)

 

Visitors

Parents

47%

45%

57%

60%

56%

Spouse

37

23

25

5

24

Siblings

25

37

39

46

33

Relative

19

15

19

16

30

Male Friend

6

6

7

12

15

Female Friend

6

13

12

14

6

Months Served in Prison

Correspondents

6 - 11

12 - 23

24 - 35

36 - 47

48+

No Correspondents

3%

12%

3%

10%

4%

Median Number

(2)

(2)

(3)

(2)

(3)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Correspondents

 

 

 

 

 

Parents

66%

67%

77%

65%

71%

Spouse

50

27

31

10

29

Siblings

34

49

57

56

50

Relative

25

22

29

26

39

Male Friend

3

11

12

12

15

Female Friend

6

19

24

21

11

Total Number

N = 459

(32)

(184)

(120)

(57)

(66)

TABLE 13
RATIO OF MARRIED INMATE WITH SOME VISITS
FROM WIFE BY NUMBER OF PRISON TERMS,
LENGTH OF INCARCERATION,
AND TYPE OF MARRIAGE

79% during the first two years of their prison terms. All four of the married inmates in their first year of imprisonment were visiting with the wives. While a similar decrease is seen with the common-law marriages (only two of seven visiting in the third and fourth year), the overall figures show legally married men to be more than twice as likely to be visited by their spouses.

The lower half of the table, which shows for the inmates who have previously served at least one term in prison the relationship between time served and visits from their wives, suggests that the pattern of decreasing visits from wives doesn't hold up after the first prison term. If the inmate is a parole violator or is in his second or subsequent term, he is as likely to be still visiting with his wife during the fourth year as the first. Visiting with common-law wives is very unlikely to occur at any time during the second or subsequent prison terms. One determinant of total time in prison is the number of terms the inmate has served. Recidivists as a group will have served much more total time than first termers. However, many factors other than time served also distinguish between these two groups which serve to complicate the interpretation of the relationships between time served and visits from wives.

In table 14 those serving their first, second, and third or more terms are compared in terms of frequency and types of contact. In all but one of the comparisons, every statistically significant difference showed more contacts with the outside world for inmates serving their first prison terms. Over ten percent more of the recidivists received no visits. While two people had visited the average first termer, the second or third termer had only one. Only about one-third of, the recidivists received visits from parents, compared to 52% of the other group. Among the first termers, 14% more received visits from brothers and sisters. Second and third termers were also slightly less likely to be corresponding and visiting with other relatives.

TABLE 14
INMATES RECEIVING VISITS AND CORRESPONDENCE
BY NUMBER OF PRISON TERMS SERVED AND RELATIONSHIP
(In Percentages)

 

Number

Visiting

Correspondence

1st Term

2nd Term

3 or More Terms

1st Term

2nd Term

3 or More Terms

None

26%

35%

38%

8%

14%

12%

Median Number

(2)

(1)

(1)

(3)

(2)

(2)

Relationship

Parents

52%

33%

31%

70%

58%

54%

Spouse

23

24

16

28

29

24

Siblings

37

27

21

51

39

40

Relative

18

16

12

27

21

20

Male Friend

9

7

7

11

13

13

Female Friend

11

9

14

18

15

21

Total Number*

(459)

(135)

( 200)

(459)

(135)

(200)


* Excludes 49 cases with no information on termer status. Parole violation is considered as another prison term.

The major exception to this trend appears to be contact with wives. However, this is partly a function of differences in the number of married men. When only common-law and legally married inmates are considered, 57% of the first termers have visits from wives compared to 42% of the recidivists. On the other hand, this difference is due almost entirely to the high rate of contact during the first two years. There is no significant difference in visits from wives between married recidivists and those who have served three or more years of their first term.

Summary and Conclusions
The effects of prison on inmates remain an elusive matter surrounded by much speculation but little evidence. The few available studies of time in prison and recidivism were recently summarized by Bennett who observed that "if one examines the parole outcome of those incarcerated for shorter periods of time compared with those who spent longer periods confined, those spending shorter periods in the institution had more favorable outcomes on parole."1/ The evidence for this is so unclear, however, that the California Department of Corrections is currently involved in an experimental program of early release to parole which is designed to determine the relationship of time served to recidivism.

On a more theoretical level, Goffman has suggested ways in which the "moral career" of the inmate in a total institution affects his character.2/ A recent attempt by Karmel to test Goffman's notion, however, failed to produce any supporting evidence. When "self-mortification" was defined as (1) loss of self-esteem, (2) loss of role identification, and (3) increased depression, the mental patients sampled showed no deterioration from the first day through the fourth week. 3/ This limited "non-finding," however, has been challenged by Bohr on methodological grounds.4/ After retesting inmates at a reception center once a week for a month, Distefano reported, "Analyses of variance revealed significant mood changes between the four tests and administration of four mood factors. Systematic reduction in anxiety, depression, concentration, and skepticism scores were found as a function of test replication."5/

In the area of the effects of length of imprisonment on attitudes and values, only a limited amount of information is available. Wheeler's classic and often quoted study seemed to establish a definite U-shaped trend in adherence to inmate values. When inmates were divided by the proportion of their sentence already served and compared in terms of their adherence to the inmate code, Wheeler found that there was an increasing commitment to the inmate value system during the first part of their prison stay but a decreasing adherence as they approached their release dates. 6/ Although Wheeler's finding was widely accepted for many years, a recent replication of the study by Atchley and McCabe in a federal prison failed to find any such trend suggesting the early findings may have been a reflection of the particular prison where the research was done.7/

While there is little information about the impact of prison on recidivism, personalities, or values, there is even less about its effects on family relationships. A reasonably thorough search of the literature failed to turn up even one relevant study aside from a few impressionistic accounts. Thus, the findings outlined in this report cannot be compared with those from other correctional settings.

Social ties between the inmate and his family and friends proved remarkably resistant to the eroding influences of time spent in prison. At the end of four years, inmates had at least as many social contacts as those just beginning their prison terms, with one major exception. Contacts from legally married wives of first term inmates grew fewer through the second year, suggesting that the marital relationship deteriorates as the years in prison pass. At first glance it seems strange that marriage, the most intense relationship, also is the only relationship which appears so affected by time. It may be this very intensity that is its vulnerability. The normal give and take among adult relatives is very minor by comparison and may not be that difficult to carry on from behind bars. On the other hand, the degree of reciprocity involved in marriage may be the ingredient which makes it so difficult to continue. Another consideration is that one is born into family relationships, and relatives are not replaceable in the same sense as spouses. A person who is dissatisfied with his relationship with his mother, for example, can't go out and look for a new one in the same way that a disenchanted wife may have her eye open for a new mate.

Given what appears to be a major deterioration in marriages after the first and second year of imprisonment (about one-fourth fewer of the wives were still visiting after three or more years), it is surprising that a hard core of wives continues the same level of contacts through four years plus and on into the second or third prison term. Some speculation might be offered here to account for this. At least one study has suggested that felon inmates and their wives may make a good match. One hundred and sixteen wives were compared with their husbands in prison, and the conclusion reached was that they tended to come from remarkably similar backgrounds and situations. Wives often exhibited similar patterns of deviant behavior and tended to show the same psychopathology seen among their husbands first-degree female relatives.8/ Such assortative mating may provide the relationship with a potentiality for greater endurance.

Another process that appears to take place with some recidivists and their wives who maintain contact throughout the years is what might be called the "service wife syndrome." Career soldiers and their spouses sometimes find that they have made such a good adjustment to the long periods of separation that living together in a conjugal family situation becomes fairly difficult. The wife often learns to cope so well with being on her own that the returning soldier-husband has no role to play in the household or the child rearing. Frozen out of household affairs he is left with the role of provider, part-time lover, and ceremonial head for festive occasions. The marital relationship then becomes extremely limited both in terms of the amount of sharing which takes place and the amount of close contact possible. The new tour of duty becomes a welcome reprieve for both. This arrangement may become very satisfying, particularly for women who are predisposed to find the role of mother and homemaker very gratifying but have difficulty relating to a man as a wife. In such situations, the role of service wife provides many of the benefits of legal marriage without many of the attendant problems.

A similar process may take place among some career prisoners and their wives. The first prison term is often preceded by a stormy period of personal and domestic problems. The forced separation may serve to reduce friction. The wife becomes eligible for welfare as soon as the husband is committed or returned to prison as a parole violator and is thus assured of at least a minimal level of support. If the husband has few job skills and frequent periods of unemployment, the forced separation may not even bring about a reduced living standard. The wife may even experience an increase in real income if the husband is a chronic alcoholic or otherwise indulges himself at the expense of the household. When the low economic status of most inmates-to-be is mixed with a turbulent domestic situation, the wife may have little motivation for being concerned about keeping her husband out of prison.

On the other hand, the welfare system provides motivation for the wife to remain faithful through the threat of discontinuing financial support if she takes up with another man. By pointing out that, in some cases, there are material benefits resulting from sticking with the incarcerated husband, the intention is not to depreciate the strong emotional ties which are usually involved also. The suggestion is simply that there may be less hardship involved than is often assumed. Another factor seems worth mentioning, although it probably occurs in only a few cases. Hardship seems to be a common experience of the wives of inmates, and the ability to deal with it a much admired trait. Indeed, hardship is often viewed as a test of character. In what might be called the "Queen for a Day syndrome," some prisoners' wives appear to derive considerable satisfaction out of what others perceive to be the great hardship which they must endure because of their husbands' being sent to prison. Family and friends are likely to provide considerable sympathy and support. Additionally, if the couple had prior marital problems, his commitment may then serve as proof positive that the problems were really his all along: the wife is exonerated and may even take on the mantle of the silent sufferer. The high point comes when, through all this, she sticks by the side of her husband and visits him religiously every Sunday.

The type of contact itself, formal visiting, may also develop into an enjoyable activity. While most married couples undoubtedly find it much too constraining and unreal, for others it takes on many of the features of a renewed courtship.* ( * Suggested in conversation with Rudy A. Renteria, Parole Agent I, California Department of Corrections.) The two hours together every other Sunday are looked forward to much as a "date". Each wears his best clothes, makes his best appearance, and is on his best behavior carefully selecting what to say in order to make the best impression on the other. The conversation is light, reassuring, and affectionate. Dreams of the future are built around promises that the shortcomings of the past will be corrected. Gone are the realities of the former relationship with the harsh words and frequent conflicts. The courtship ends with parole, however, and the couple often finds the high expectations, developed over several year of holding hands in the prison visiting room, hard to meet.

While no overall deterioration in social ties appears to occur during the first prison term, major differences in social relationships can be seen between recidivists and first termers. There are two possible explanations for this finding. First, apart from the added time signified by the second or third prison term, there may be something special which occurs with the parole violation or the new prison term such as the extreme disillusionment of the family. This interpretation, however, is not supported by any of the other findings. The second possibility is that the recidivists are a biased sample of the first termers and, in particular, that they include an over-representation of that portion of the first termer population which has few social ties. In other words, the best explanation seems to be that those first termers who maintain strong family relationships while in prison are less likely to be parole violators and second termers. In Chapter VI this interpretation is tested when we examine this group's recidivism rate. In this chapter, the emphasis was on what the experience of prison does to outside relationships. In the following chapter, this question is reversed as the focus is on discovering how the inmate's family ties affect his behavior in prison.

1/ Bennett, L., "Psychological Effects of Long-Term Confinement." Paper read at the Third National Symposium on Law Enforcement and Technology, Chicago, March 1970.

2/ Goffman, E., Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, Garden City, Doubleday and Co., 1961.

3/ Karmel, M., "Total Institutions and Self-Mortification," Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Vol.10, June 1969, pp. 134-142.

4/ Bohr, R., "On Total Institutions and Self-Mortification," Journal of Health and Social Behavior Vol. 11, June 1970, p. 152.

5/ Distefano, M.K., Jr., "Prisoner Mood Shifts During Initial Incarceration," American Journal of Corrections, Vol. 26, Jan.- Feb. 1964, pp. 12-16.

6/ Wheeler, S., "Socialization in Correctional Communities," American Sociological Review, Vol. 26, Oct. 1961, pp. 697-712.

7/ Atchley, R. and M. McCabe, "Socialization in Correctional Communities: A Replication, " American Sociological Review, Vol. 33, Oct. 1968, pp. 774-785.

8/ Guse, S.B., et. al., "Psychiatric Study of Wives of Convicted Felons: An Example of Assortative Mating," American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol.. 126, June 1970, pp. 115-118.