The most striking feature of the literature about the benefits of visits for prisoners, their families and communities, is that there is little if any contrary argument and conflicting data to the general principle that the better the quality of visitation throughout a prisoner's incarceration, the better the effects on the prisoner, his or her post-release adjustment, the family of the prisoner and the community. In fact, the two variables that correlate most strongly with a prisoner's success in post-release adjustment are visitation and education. Regarding the latter, the recidivism rate (defined in this instance as re-imprisonment) three-years after release is 62% for the entire population of prisoners. The rate for prisoners who take part in an educational program while incarcerated is between 5% and 15% (depending on the study). Quality visitation throughout a prisoner's term has similarly impressive effects on the recidivism rate. There is such a strong and universal consensus on this point that many states assume the positive correlation in their official policies. For example, Florida's 1999 Statute 944.8031, "Inmate's family visitation...," begins: "The Legislature finds that maintaining an inmate's family and community relationships through enhancing visitor services and programs and increasing the frequency and quality of the visits is an underutilized correctional resource that can improve an inmate's behavior in the correctional facility and, upon an inmate's release from a correctional facility, will help to reduce recidivism." Or, Oklahoma's 1999 Statute OP-030118, "Visitation," begins: "Because strong family and community ties increase the likelihood the inmate will succeed after release, visits are encouraged."
Literature on the effects of Visitation on Prisoners:
The classic study was done by Holt and Miller (1972).
Among other things, they showed that California prisoners who have regular,
continuing visits with (at least three) family members show a significantly
lower recidivism rate when compared with those who do not have such visits
throughout their prison term. Prisoners with no visitors were six
times more likely to re-enter prison during the first year of parole as
those with three or more visitors. Ohlin (1954) had earlier studied
prisoners released from Illinois prisons between 1925 and 1935 and showed
that 75% of those who had maintained "active family interest" (i.e., maintained
continuing visitation with family members) during their term of incarceration
were successful on parole while only 34% of those considered loners experienced
Glaser (1964) did a similar study with federal prisoners and found that 71% of the "active family interest" group were successful on parole compared with 50% of those in the "no contact with relatives" group. According to Patton (1998), in a law review article summarizing research, "Female prisoners who have contact with their children and who complete family reunification programs which reintroduce them in a Community-based setting have lower recidivism rates than female prisoners without access to their children or such programs." Schafer (1994) conducted a survey of visitors to two men's prisons and found that successful completion of parole is significantly related to the maintenance of family ties during incarceration. I (Kupers, 1999) have written from a clinical perspective, with case reports, about the importance of quality family visitation in terms of the prisoner's mental health, his or her ability to participate successfully in prison programs and stay out of disciplinary trouble while incarcerated, and his or her potential for success at becoming a productive citizen after being released; and the negative consequences of impaired or less-than-quality visitation during incarceration.
In terms of youth offenders, Lewis (1976) reports on the success of a program within the Youth Authority that Richard McGee established while he was California's Director of Corrections. McGee's "M-2 Program" matched two people, one an incarcerated youth and the other a volunteer from the community. The volunteer visited the incarcerated youth regularly and then helped him adjust in the community when he gained parole. The results were better outcomes after release for the wards who had volunteer sponsors than for wards of the Youth Authority who did not have visits with a sponsor; and 80% of the youths and their sponsors reported that they were very satisfied with the "M-2 Program." In terms of the effect of visitation on prisoners suffering from mental illlness, Jacoby & Kozie-Peak's (1997) study of 27 mentally ill prisoners released from Ohio prisons in 1994-1996 showed they had a higher quality of life after they were released if they had quality visitation and other forms of social support during their incarceration. Bonta, Law & Hanson's (1998) large meta-analysis showed that the major predictors of recidivism are the same for mentally disordered offenders as for nondisordered offenders.
Dr. Bert Pepper, nationally renowned expert on substance abuse and mental illness, editor of TIE-Lines and Director of Harbor House (residential treatment for substance abuse) in the Bronx, reports ".... we have learned that family visits and contacts contribute greatly to positive program participation toward recovery (from substance abuse). 70% of our residents have a criminal justice history, and many are on probation or parole at the time they are at Harbor House. Many splits (unauthorized departures) from the program occur when a resident doesn't hear from or get an expected visit from a relative, and dumps his/her recovery and leaves the program, to find out what is going on."
Eva Lee Homer (1979), in a review article on inmate-family ties, summarized the extant research literature: "The convergence of these studies, the consensus of findings, should be emphasized. The strong positive relationship between strength of family-social bonds and parole success has held up for more than 50 years, across very diverse offender populations and in different locales. It is doubtful if there is any other research finding in the field of corrections which can come close to this record" (p.49).
Literature on the effects of Visitation on Prisoners' Families:
There are many studies showing the negative effects on children of a parent's incarceration (e.g., Fritsch & Burkhead, 1981; Breen, 1995). Most of these studies argue for quality visitation because it fosters continuity of the parental relationship and tends to ameliorate some of the damage caused by a parent's incarceration. Sack & Seidler (1978) studied 22 children of prisoners and found that they were socially isolated and complained of emotional symptoms following imprisonment of their fathers at the Oregon State Penitentiary, but that quality visitation served as an important link of continuity in the parental relationship and counteracted such symptoms as fear connected with their parents' incarceration.
Friedman and Esselatya (1965) showed that a father's incarceration results in lower grades for his children at school and a greater likelihood they will become delinquent. Sarah Gauch (1989) reports that a National Council on Crime and Delinquency study found that the chances for recidivism for the prisoner and delinquency for the child increase dramatically when they are denied regular visits. Elise Zealand (1998) examines the importance of maintaining contact between incarcerated fathers and their children, and concludes: "Judges, lawmakers, and corrections officials have, for the most part, failed to recognize the important role an imprisoned father can play in the lives of his children. More importantly, they have failed to assess the dangers inherent in keeping him from that role -- to the children, their mothers, and society. Giving fathers equal access to parenting and visitation programs... will help keep vulnerable families intact and break the bitter, intergenerational cycle of incarceration partly responsible for our burgeoning prison population (pp. 280-281).
Brooks & Bahna (1994) make a similar, and similarly
convincing argument for quality visitation between parents in prison and
their offspring and families. There is a large literature regarding reunification
in general, including after a parent is released from jail or prison.
In general, experts in the field favor all possible efforts at reunification
except in a minority of cases where the parent is shown to be unfit
or dangerous to the child(ren) (see Hariston, 1998). Fanshel (1971) reports that the longer children remain in foster care, the greater their chances of becoming emotionally disturbed. But the key to successful reunification is quality visitation throughout the term of the parent's incarceration, including the parent's participation in decisions about the child's education and family life. In this regard, Perkins and Ansay's (1998) non-correctional study found that participation in a quality visitation program during adjudicated separation resulted in reunification in 42% of cases compared to 29% of cases where the parent did not have consistent visits. The United States General Accounting Office (1991) reports that consistent, quality visitation with parents who do not have custody of their children results in a much higher rate of reunification; in fact, in 1986, the GAO reports that only half of the children who had regular visits with parents were in foster care for more than one year, compared to 90% who received infrequent or no visits.
Regarding spouses, Schwartz & Weintraub (1974) report that the impact on a wife of a husband's incarceration is quite similar to loss of a spouse by death; except loss by incarceration can be worse in that it involves the same grief and fear, but additionally involves shame, anger and confusion. Daniel Glaser, an experienced criminologist and expert on correctional administration, writes: "For married inmates, absence tends to make spousal and offspring relationships indifferent; they drift into bonds with others, especially if the marriage was brief or troubled, and if the spouse is young. Visits to inmates can be a major factor in repairing these relationships" (p. 71).
Literature on the effects of Visitation on the Community:
Todd R. Clear & Dina R. Rose (1999) have studied the impact of incarceration on the communities of the prisoners. They found that "removing these residents may disrupt the social networks that are the foundation of informal social control. Because high-incarceration neighborhoods are socially disorganized, their capacity to absorb these disruptions is limited. Thus, high levels of incarceration in some communities may leave them in worse condition than before because of the resulting disruptions in social organization." Clear and Rose proceed to report empirical data supporting this conclusion from their study of Leon County (Tallahassee), Florida. Elliott et. al. (1996) report negative consequences for adolescents where there is a high rate of incarceration in a community.
Bonta, James, Moira Law & Karl Hanson. (1998).
Psychological Bulletin, 123,2, March, 123-142.
Breen, Peter A. (1995). Families in Peril, Bridging the barrier. Corrections Today, 57, 98-99.
Brooks, Justin & Kimberly Bahna. (1994). "It's a family affair," The incarceration of the American Family: Confronting Legal and social issues. University of San Francisco Law Review, 28, 271.
Elliott, Delbert S., William Julius Wilson, David Huizinga, Robert J.
Sampson, Amanda Elliott, & Bruce Rankin. (1996). The effects of neighborhood disadvantage on adolescent development. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 33,4,389-426.
Fanshel, D. (1975). Parental visiting of children in foster care: Key to discharge. Social Service Review, 49, 493-514.
Friedman, S. & T. Esselatya. (1965). Adjustment of children to jail inmates. Federal Probation, December, pp. 55-59.
Fritsch, Travis A. & John D. Burkhead. (1981). Behavioral reactions of children to parental absence due to imprisonment. Family Relations, 30, 83.
Gauch, Sarah. (1989). When mothers go to prison: When you're behind bars, does your family life have to crumble? One model program discovers some surprising answers. Human Relations, 16, Summer, p. 33.
Glaser, David. (1964). The Effectiveness of a Prison and Parole System. New York: Bobbs-Merrill.
Glaser, David. (1995). Preparing Convicts for Law-Abiding Lives. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Hairston, Creasie Finney, moderator. (1998). Examining Policies Toward Children and Families of Offenders; The Fifth North American Conference on the Family and Corrections, Sept. 14-16, 1998, Bethesda, Maryland.
Holt, Norman & Donald Miller. (1972). Explorations in Inmate-Family Relationships. Sacramento: Research Division, Department of Corrections, State of California.
Homer, Eva Lee. (1979). Inmate-family ties: Desirable but difficult. Federal Probation, 47-52.
Jacoby, Joseph E. & Brenda Kozie-Peak. (1997). The benefits of social support for mentally ill offenders: Prison-to-community transitions. Behavioral Sciences & The Law, 15, 4, Fall, 483-501.
Kupers, Terry. (1999). Lack of quality visits. In Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Lewis, R. (1976). M-2 Project Evaluation: Final Parole Follow-up of Wards in the M-2 Program. Sacramento: Department of the Youth Authority.
Ohlin, L. (1954). The stability and validity of parole experience tables.
Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago.
Patton, William Wesley. (1998). Mommy's gone, daddy's in prison, now what about me?: Family reunification for children of single custodial fathers in prison -- will the sins of incarcerated fathers be inherited by their children? North Dakota Law Review, 75, 179-204.
Pepper, Bert. (2000). Personal communication.
Perkins, Daniel F. & Sylvia J. Ansay. (1998). The effecctiveness of a visitation program in fostering visits with noncustodial parents. Family relations, July, 253-258.
Sack, W.H. & J. Seidler. (1978). Should children visit their parents in prison? Law and Human Behavior, 2,3, 261-266.
Schafer, N.E. (1994) Exploring the link between visits and parole success: A Survey of prison visitors. International Journal of Offender Therapy & Comparative Criminology, 38, 1, Spring, 17-32.
Schwartz, M. & J. Weintraub. (1974). The prisoner's wife: A study in crisis. Federal Probation, March.
United States General Accounting Office. ((1991). Foster Care: Children's experiences linked to various factors; better data needed. Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.A.O., HRD-91-64.
Zealand, Elise. (1998). Protecting the ties that bind from behind bars: A call for equal opportunities for incarcerated fathers and their children to maintain the parent-child relationship. Columbia Jourrnal of Law and Social Problems, 31, 247-281).