Inmate population accompanied by the complex health and social issues related to the experience of incarceration, has prompted scholars and epidemiologists to consider the current state of incarceration in the United States as a public health crisis. Inmates’ families, particularly the children, reside in the shadow of this crisis. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, 52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates are parents to 1.7 million minor children during the period of their incarceration (Johnson, 2012). The statistics regarding parental incarceration are alarming and highlight the relevance of examining how having an incarcerated parent, especially a mother, affects children’s short and long term developmental processes.
The plight of children of prisoners has only recently moved to the national spotlight and much still remains to be discovered about the quality of their lives, the kinds of challenges and barriers they encounter, and the service needs of these youth and their families. Gilham (2012) examines how attachment theory can be linked to children’s development in relation to parental incarceration, more specifically mothers. “Several researchers have documented that children suffer deleterious effects when separated from their mother. Typical negative consequences for children include difficulty forming attachments, depression, and problems with authority figures”. Gilham (2012) continues stating, “These children also suffer from anxiety and grief related to their separation. Preschool-age children are at the greatest risk for negative effects. These children are likely to become overly dependent on adults, may regress in their development, and assume guilt related to observing their mother’s arrest. In addition, these children may experience eating and sleeping disruptions or changes, more aggressive behavior, or withdrawal” (p.90). In regards to the mothers of these children, several authors have found that incarcerated mothers desire to establish and or maintain relationships with their children. They also seek to develop the necessary skills to resume maternal responsibilities after release because family reunification is a goal for many women in prison; programming is needed regarding parenting roles as well as the developmental needs of children. These authors recommended that treatment for mothers must involve four elements: a caring staff, a comprehensive treatment approach, education on parenting skills, and a comfortable and supportive environment. Classes and visitation opportunities are essential to mother–child bonding. Emphasis must be placed on nurturing young children’s attachment to their mothers (Gilham, 2012, p.91). In order to examine this issue of parental incarceration Gilham (2012) posed a research question and it is reflected by the following statement, “Does incarcerated mother’s perception of the impact of their separation with their children have an effect on children development?”. The independent variable is the incarcerated mothers perception and the dependent variable is the children’s development.
Whilst Gilham (2012) focused on incarcerated mothers perceptions on the impact of their separation, Johnson (2012) focused on the social service needs of children of prisoners and potential solutions for meeting those needs from the youth perspective. To begin this study, fliers were posted about the research at different organizations and announcements were made during group and community meetings. Clients were provided a phone number and e-mail address to obtain additional information about the study. An effort was also made to seek a homogenous sample by limiting the study to parents and grandparents caring for a teenager whose parent had been in prison in the past 3 years (p. 53). The study that was implemented employed concept-mapping technology, which is an evaluation process that integrates qualitative and quantitative methodologies to produce quantitative or numerical results in the forms of pictures and graphs (p. 54). Prior to the data collection phase of the study, 5 youth and 10 caregivers were interviewed individually about their service needs, and audio recordings were made of the interviews. Transcripts were retrieved and statements that identified specific needs were flagged. Once the statements were flagged participants were asked to individually sort and group 47 statements into categories that made sense to them. Fourteen youth participated in the sorting and rating activities, and four of them participated in the data analysis and interpretation meeting. Although this particular concept mapping process requires a minimum of 10 sorters, no minimum or maximum number of raters is required. However, the reliability of the analysis increased as the number of raters’ increased (p. 54). The 5-point Likert-type scale that ranged from 1 (not at all important) to 5 (extremely important) was used as the measurement strategy. The sorting and rating data was entered into the computer program, and concept maps were computed using two major statistical analyses: multidimensional scaling and cluster analysis. These are maps that are generated by the analysis of the data, which show how the participants’ ideas cluster together and how they place value on the conceptual clusters. This concept map shows not only how the statements cluster together to represent specific themes, but the lines or levels of each cluster are also a visual indication of how each cluster ranks in importance. The labels assigned to each cluster were generated through a combination of participant input and computer calculations. The visual interpretation shows that the clusters with the most layers were rated the highest on importance, whereas those with the fewest layers were rated the lowest (p. 56). The major findings of this article were that many of the youth that participated will benefit not only from service interventions, but effective intervention strategies may also decrease or prevent negative behavioral outcomes.
Like Gilham (2012) and Johnson (2012), Flynn (2012) also focuses on the mother-child perceptions of separation due to mother incarceration, but this article adds the element of childcare while the mother is in confinement. The current study findings indicate that although fathers were the largest group providing care for these young people, participants were mostly unsatisfied with these arrangements. An implication of this study was the fact that the study did not gather data from the caregivers; the views and experiences of fathers caring for their children are unknown. It was also beyond the scope of this study to objectively ‘measure’ the quality of care provided by fathers, but this would seem a reasonable next step for researchers (p. 296). Another implication of the study was the recruitment method; participation in the study was confined to those women who were contactable, and therefore possibly more stable, in the post-release period. As a result, the findings may underestimate the difficulties faced by the broader group of young people and their mothers. Relying on one-off data collection with young people may have similarly influenced the data provided by young people. Social desirability, the stigma usually attached to the topic and a desire to protect their mother may have acted to minimize the difficulties they reported (p. 290). As stated by Flynn (2012), further research into maternal incarceration must critically examine the defining of ‘mothers’, to ensure that all children, and their varied experiences, are counted. Also whilst the older age range of the young people in this study (10–18 years) may have been influential in the extent of care provided by fathers, it is not possible to comment with any certainty, as previous research has tended to examine the experiences of ‘children’ aged from birth to 18 years as an homogenous group. Similarly, ethnicity, as suggested in some US research may be an influential factor (P. 296)