5. Mass Incarceration and Families:
A Shared Task of Healing

PJR Vol. 9, Issue 4, 2019, The Returning Citizen: A Public Justice Perspective on Reintegrating the Formerly Incarcerated

Collin Slowey is a former intern with the Center for Public Justice, where he interned with the Sacred Sector initiative. He is a political science student at Baylor University. 

Editor’s Note: This is an extended version of an article by the same name published on Shared Justice in May 2019.

Much of the talk surrounding criminal justice reform is centered on the incarcerated population and returning citizens, those who have served sentences and are reentering society. But major social issues have major social ramifications, and the full effects of our prison crisis are far more extensive than many Americans may realize.

One population often overlooked is the family of those who are, or have been incarcerated. A new report by the criminal justice reform nonprofit FWD.us reveals the depth and breadth of the wounds that mass incarceration has inflicted on families across the country.

On April 18, the prisoner outreach and advocacy organization Prison Fellowship hosted a webinar featuring Felicity Rose, FWD.us’ director of research and policy for criminal justice reform, as well as former Connecticut governor John Rowland, who is currently working to bring Prison Fellowship programs to states in the Northeast. The webinar was focused on Rose’s research about the impact of the prison crisis on American families.

Every Second Citizen

For decades, lawmakers referred to incarcerated individuals’ families as a minority and an anomalous segment of the greater population, and as Rowland pointed out, they weren’t wrong to do so. After all, 40 years ago, the number of Americans in prison was relatively small. However, since the 1980s, criminal justice policies pursued in our country have caused a dramatic increase in incarceration, thereby multiplying the number of families affected by incarceration into the millions.

FWD.us’ data shows that currently one in two adults—every second citizen—has had an immediate family member incarcerated at some time. The statistic increases to almost two-thirds of all Americans if extended families are included. The reach of the mass incarceration crisis is extraordinary, and it affects racial minorities and the poor in a unique way. FWD.us reports that “[b]lack people are 50 percent more likely than white people to have had a family member incarcerated, and … [p]eople earning less than $25,000 per year are 61 percent more likely than people earning more than $100,000 to have had a family member incarcerated.”

The report goes on to demonstrate that the negative consequences of incarceration are not limited to those behind prison walls. On the contrary, family members experience many hardships and burdens, according to Rose. Such burdens include the financial strains of losing a primary source of income and costs associated with travel, phone calls and bail. There are associated health risks that can result from the emotional trauma and social stigma of a family member’s incarceration. For example, those with family members in prison are more likely to develop diabetes or to experience a decline in mental health. Lastly, the incarcerated individual’s absence places a strain on relationships that can result in fractured families. During the webinar, Rowland reminded viewers that the in-prison divorce rate is close to double the national average.

Applying a Public Justice Framework

A public justice framework is a unique political philosophy that places great importance on determining the proper roles and responsibilities of the various elements of society. According to public justice theory, individuals, civil society (composed of families, businesses, churches and nonprofits, etc.) and the government all have distinct yet interconnected roles to play in furthering the common good of our national community. These different institutions need to be protected and upheld for a truly just society to exist.

In a public justice framework, the family is immensely important for the health of society as a whole. As the Center for Public Justice (CPJ) states in its Guidelines on Family, it “is the most basic of human institutions.” Unfortunately, the consequences of mass incarceration on American families have been incredibly harmful. We should therefore strive, as a nation, to counteract them. But who is best equipped to address the problem: the government, civil society or the individual? Prison Fellowship’s webinar made it clear that each has a part to play.

The Role of Government

Public justice theory says that one of government’s primary tasks is to safeguard the well-being of other social institutions. In the words of the CPJ Guidelines on Family, “Government’s policies should aim to uphold the integrity and social viability of families … [and] take carefully into account the ways other institutions and dynamics of society impact families.” In the U.S. today, the criminal justice system, administered by the government itself, has infringed upon the family, and it is the government’s duty to resolve this dangerous situation.

In accord with this responsibility, government must tackle the essential task of reforming the criminal justice system to reduce mass incarceration. Little else will make as big a difference in the lives of incarcerated citizens and American society in general. The bipartisan First Step Act, put into law earlier this year, is the biggest piece of criminal justice reform legislation that has been passed in decades. Over 3,000 Americans were released from prison in July because of it and are now free to return to their loved ones. Nevertheless, the Act is simply, as its name suggests, a first step. Moreover, it applies only to federal prisons, and the majority of incarcerated Americans inhabit state or local prisons. Our federal, state and local governments will have to work hard if they are to capitalize on the momentum the First Step Act has created and effect far-reaching, lasting change. It remains to be seen to what extent they will do so.

In addition to systemic reforms, the government can also make it easier for families to communicate with their incarcerated loved ones. In the Prison Fellowship webinar, Rowland pointed to the incredible number of hoops that incarcerated individuals’ families have to leap through to stay in contact with them. Rose told stories of teenagers and young adults having to drive for hours and hours to access their loved ones’ facilities. In addition, they sometimes must endure invasive and almost humiliating security procedures for just a short visit. Furthermore, phone calls with a loved one in prison are extraordinarily expensive, making regular communication even more difficult. The government could do a great deal for families by removing or mitigating these obstacles to family engagement. The First Step Act, with its provision for placing individuals in prison facilities close to their homes, is a good start, but it applies only to federal prisons, and more comprehensive reforms are required.

The Role of Civil Society

Civil society encompasses a vast number of different voluntary organizations that touch almost every aspect of American life. In a public justice framework, almost every social problem needs to be addressed by institutions of civil society because, as the CPJ Guidelines on Welfare put it, “nongovernmental organizations … are close to the needs [of individual citizens] and devoted to alleviating them.” The family crisis we are currently facing due to mass incarceration is no different. Private associations—because of their mission-driven nature and the close, often spiritual relationships their staff have with countless Americans—are well situated to tend to the familial wounds caused by imprisonment.

Rowland and Rose both agreed that churches can and should provide additional support to families. Incarceration trauma is not often spoken about in churches. But FWD.us’ research shows that a significant proportion of the average congregation is affected by it, nonetheless. If one in two Americans has had an immediate family member serve a jail or prison sentence, pastors and community leaders should not be afraid to breach this taboo subject and pave the way for dialogue. Rose was adamant that beginning a conversation is one of the most powerful things that can be done for families affected by incarceration.

Other institutions of civil society also have important roles to play. Many nonprofits dedicated to helping returning citizens and prisoners’ families already exist and are doing good work. One such organization is Healing Communities, a charity founded in 2005, which partners with churches to provide ministerial support for returning citizens and families with incarcerated loved ones.

Different organizations work independently to help keep those in prison connected with their spouses and children. Prison Fellowship, for instance, helps incarcerated individuals send presents home for the holidays through their Christmas Angel Tree program. A nonprofit called Flikshop provides families with a simple and convenient prison postcard service. Various local charities, such as New York’s Osborne Association and South Louisiana’s Cornerstone Builders, organize bus rides to bring children to visit their incarcerated parents. Finally, there is Prison Marriage Ministry, which counsels couples with an imprisoned member and facilitates healthy dialogue between spouses. These groups and more give crucial services, without which many American families would fall apart. Hopefully, more organizations will step in to fill similarly supportive roles within their local communities and across the country.

The Role of the Individual

In a public justice framework, social change can rarely be enacted without the cooperation and help of the individual. It’s important to recognize that Americans have historically overemphasized individuals’ responsibilities. This has led to an overly simplified understanding of American society, in which the government and its citizens are seen as the only important elements of our political community, and the institutions of civil society are left out of the picture altogether.

Against this oversimplification, CPJ says: “Government should not treat human beings merely as individual citizens; human beings also exist as family members, faith-community members, economically organized employers and employees, and in dozens of other capacities and relationships. ‘Principled pluralism’ means that government is obligated to do justice to society's nongovernmental organizations and institutions as a matter of principle.” Essentially, we cannot look at politics as the playing field of only individuals and the state.

Nevertheless, individuals have a part to play in addressing the needs of the family, a part that cannot be overlooked. The speakers on the Prison Fellowship webinar shared this perspective. They said that Americans with loved ones in prison should seek to uphold the integrity of their families by proactively communicating with their incarcerated family members and reaching out to other families in similar situations, so they can help shoulder one another’s burdens.

Rowland implored audience members to stay in contact with those in prison. He remarked upon the power of face-to-face visits and phone calls, and he said that letters can bring even more joy. Seeing the mail come in and finding a letter from a family member, he explained, is one of the happiest experiences available to the incarcerated. Even those who have little time to spare or for whom sending mail is difficult can keep in touch with loved ones with the help of nonprofits like Flikshop. Rose specifically advised that those who seek to visit loved ones that are imprisoned far from home organize carpools to cut costs. As stated earlier, there also might be nonprofits in the area that provide bus rides for free. All in all, simple acts of solidarity can be of great practical benefit, and individuals have a duty to try their best to undertake them.


FWD.us’ latest report reveals that the effects of mass incarceration are wider and run deeper than anyone might have imagined. The fact that half of all U.S. adults have seen an immediate family member spend time in jail or prison is startling. These statistics should shock us, but they should also motivate us to take action. As Rowland said during the webinar, “The luxury of denial no longer exists,” and the trauma that American families are enduring should be addressed sooner rather than later.

Progress is being made: the First Step Act has opened the door to a great many reforms, even if further action is still required to make them a reality. Nevertheless, much remains to be done if families and their loved ones in prison are to experience thorough healing. The negative effects of incarceration on families are numerous and, if we hope to become a healthier society, lawmakers, churches, nonprofits and individuals should all seek to do their part in strengthening families during and after incarceration.



 To respond to the author of this article please email PJR@cpjustice.org. The articles in the Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.

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