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Prisoners’ families, well-being, and social justice

Coursework essay completed in the course of a degree for the University of Cambridge.

Published onAug 28, 2022
Prisoners’ families, well-being, and social justice


Prisoners’ families occupy a liminal space in the criminal justice system. They are not the ones directly punished, nor the ones directly victimised, and yet the consequences of imprisonment also affect them. This phenomenon is often referred to as the ‘collateral consequences’ of imprisonment. The current research investigates how these collateral consequences impact the well-being of prisoners’ families and discusses the ramifications for community-level social justice. In doing so, it first critically appraises the term ‘collateral consequences’ and a recently-coined alternative: ‘symbiotic harms.’ The latter term, which is argued to constitute a more precise and empowering expression, is used throughout the essay to analyse how imprisonment affects families on an individual level, family level, and community level. Based on a literature synthesis about the prisoners’ families and ideas of social justice, it finds that imprisonment is generally harmful to families in various ways, for example, through relational changes, the loss of income, and child trauma. Yet, it also stresses the highly individualised nature of this experience and the role that intersectionality and various mediators play. Additionally, it is argued that the consequences of imprisonment also extend to the community level, where patterns of disadvantage and inequality are perpetuated not only for prisoners’ families but also for non-involved community members. In doing so, this essay extends upon the Family Impact Framework (Arditti, 2018) by suggesting that the inequality fostered by imprisonment reaches beyond the distribution of material resources; it is a source of ‘oppression’ and ‘domination’ (Condry et al., 2018). The paper concludes with a reflection on how support for family members can be incorporated into current practices, building upon the empirical evidence from ‘Invisible Walls Wales’ and similar projects. It also calls for additional research to be conducted on the effects of imprisonment on families in non-Western countries, and on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on prisoners’ families’ well-being.

Key words: social justice, criminology, prisons, mental well-being, mental health, COVID-19, family structure, family and households


To be concerned about prisoners’ families is to be profoundly concerned about social justice, about empowerment and inclusion. It is about seeking not to punish people for crimes of which they have not been convicted in a court of law by due process. It is about challenging binary thinking which entails thinking about supporting victims or offenders as if the two are mutually exclusive. It is about recognizing that, as crime harms many people, so does imprisonment.

– Helen Codd (2008, pp. 34–35, emphasis in original)

Prisoners’ families occupy a liminal space in the criminal justice system. They are not the ones directly punished, nor the ones directly victimised, and yet the consequences of imprisonment also affect them and their communities. This phenomenon is often referred to as “collateral consequences,” which is an umbrella term for “the entirety of the experiences of those whose family member is imprisoned” (Venema et al. 2021, 544 ). Examples of this include financial hardship, educational disruption, and social exclusion (see, e.g., Arditti, 2012; Condry & Minson, 2021; Murray & Farrington, 2008). The current essay will investigate how these collateral consequences impact the well-being of prisoners’ families and discuss the ramifications for community-level social justice. This is a relevant issue for two reasons. The first is an intrinsic interest; documenting prisoners’ families’ experiences helps to raise awareness about the difficulties they face and the risk factors related to familial imprisonment (Venema et al. 2021). The second is an instrumental interest, as research shows that families can help foster desistance (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021). However, for families to fulfil this role, they require assistance in sustaining social capital and recognition as victims in their own right (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017).

This essay will first critically assess the term “collateral consequences.” Then, it will outline the impact of imprisonment on families of prisoners and discuss how this influences social justice outcomes. It will conclude with some practical considerations.

Collateral Consequences: Criticism and Alternatives

The impact of imprisonment on families has been described using different terms, including “secondary punishment” and “collateral consequences” (Venema et al. 2021, 540 ). It is interesting to briefly reflect on the latter term, since – at least from a critical perspective – language is related to power (Venema et al. 2021). In other words, the language used to describe the impact of imprisonment on families both reflects and reveals how they are perceived and which course of action is deemed necessary (if any). This is especially relevant given the status of prisoners’ families as a minority group (Venema et al. 2021), as language can also serve to maintain dominance certain social structures (Ng & Deng, 2017).

Condry and Minson (2021) have criticised the phrasing “collateral consequences,” arguing that it facilitates further marginalisation of prisoners’ families. That is, by positioning the word close to the military term “collateral damage,” it fosters the idea that harm to prisoners’ families is an accepted by-product of imprisonment, like collateral damage is a by-product of war. Describing the consequences as “collateral” also seemingly infers that they are secondary, and therefore less urgent (Condry & Minson, 2021). Hence, this term might not be the most precise or empowering expression. Therefore, the authors have proposed a term that arguably better captures families’ experiences: “symbiotic harms” (Condry & Minson, 2021, p. 548). Their framework stresses that harms arise from different interdependencies, which makes it useful for also reflecting on its impact on communities and social justice. The term holds five dimensions. Firstly, harms are relational, i.e., they are shaped by interactions between people, which are embedded in relationships at different levels, including between family members, offenders, and state punishment. Secondly, there is mutuality in harms; family well-being impacts the well-being of the imprisoned member and vice versa. Thirdly, non-linearity applies to symbiotic harms to capture the natural ups and downs in the maintenance, termination, and rekindling of relationships. Fourthly, symbiotic harms are agentic since families actively take part in negotiating their harms and relationships. Finally, harms are heterogeneous, meaning that their experiences are highly individual, and there are several moderators (pre-existing factors, e.g., resilience) and mediators (intervening factors after the fact, e.g., stigma) impacting this experience (Condry & Minson, 2021).

The framework of symbiotic harms is yet to be extensively tested, but has been proven useful to understand the harms to prisoners’ families during the pandemic – when opportunities for face-to-face contact were extremely limited (Venema et al. 2021), and even the consequences of monetary sanctions (Venema et al. 2021). However, one criticism of the symbiotic harms approach is that it infers that all consequences of imprisonment are negative. Condry and Minson (2021) acknowledge that this might not always be the case; removing a disruptive, abusive, or fiscally irresponsible person from the household can offer family members respite (Venema et al. 2021). Still, they think a neutral term (like “consequences”) underappreciates that most families experience harm. A middle ground is also possible when it is recognised that positive and negative symbiotic effects can exist simultaneously, just like some prisoners say that imprisonment is painful, yet it saved them from the possibly lethal consequences of their addiction (Venema et al. 2021). Hence, another addition to Condry and Minson’s (2020) framework could be that symbiotic harms are not always mutually exclusive with “symbiotic benefits,” though it should be stressed that the harms tend to outweigh the benefits (Venema et al. 2021).

Impacts on Family Well-Being

Having critically assessed the term collateral consequences and its alternative of symbiotic harms, this paper continues with an overview of the research on the effects of imprisonment on family well-being, and discusses whether these effects are direct or indirect. Research shows that the concept of family can take many forms, especially in the prison context (Venema et al. 2021). Still, most research focuses on partners and children (Venema et al. 2021; e.g. Clancy and Maguire 2021)(Venema et al. 2021; e.g. Clancy and Maguire 2021), as will this section, though this potentially presents an oversimplification (see Venema et al. 2021).

The literature on the effects of imprisonment has been organised in different ways, for example by distinguishing between temporal dimensions (acute vs. chronic harms; Lanskey et al., 2018) and family-role dimensions (maternal vs. paternal impacts; Venema et al. 2021). Condry and Smith (2018), two leading scholars in the field, have summarised the literature using six key issues indicative of well-being (see Table 1), encompassing both an individual or family level and a systemic level (Venema et al. 2021). The latter forms the topic of a later section.

Table 1

Overview of consequences of imprisonment for prisoners’ families.


Well-being dimensions

Empirical examples


Family level

Economic and material effects

  • Removal of income provider during imprisonment (Codd, 2008)

  • Financial problems after release/during parole (Naser et al., 2006)

  • Partners forced to quit job due to increased caretaking responsibilities or stigma (Venema et al. 2021)

Changes in family relationships and quality

  • Relationship deterioration between family members (Arditti, 2012)

  • Changes in caregivers and less stable parenting (Venema et al. 2021)

  • Relief from domestic abuse (Venema et al. 2021)

Health problems

  • Mental health issues for children (Comfort, 2007)

  • Mental health issues for prisoners’ partners (Venema et al. 2021)

  • Physical health issues and disturbed development in children (Venema et al. 2021)

  • Infant mortality (Venema et al. 2021)

Behavioural changes (in children)

  • Child trauma (Arditti, 2012)

  • Child maladjustment (Dallaire & Wilson, 2010)

  • Child depression (Venema et al. 2021)

  • Antisocial behaviour (Venema et al. 2021)

Effects in relation to schooling and education (in children)

  • Educational failure and later unemployment (Venema et al. 2021)

  • Increased risk for school drop-out (Venema et al. 2021)


societal level

Social exclusion, inequality, and citizenship

  • Social exclusion (Besemer & Dennison, 2018)

  • Increasing inequality (Venema et al. 2021)

  • Eroding trust in criminal justice and government (Venema et al. 2021)

Note. Well-being dimensions reprinted from “The Sociology of Punishment and the Effects of Imprisonment on Families,” by R. Condry & P.S. Smith, in R. Condry & P. Scharff Smith, Prisons, punishment and the family: Towards a new sociology of punishment (p. 9), 2018, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Table 1 shows that all but one of the effects of imprisonment on prisoners’ families’ well-being are negative across all six dimensions and include impacts like poorer health, financial issues, and destabilised relationships. The symbiotic harms framework illustrates how these well-being dimensions are interconnected and self-perpetuating. For example, financial issues arising from the imprisonment of the breadwinner can constrain family opportunities for maintaining contact with the prisoner (via paid phone calls or visits), which also affects the prisoner (mutuality) and family relationships (Venema et al. 2021), another well-being dimension. Additionally, the symbiotic harms framework stresses that family experiences vary. To understand this heterogeneity, one could ask: how do these harms impact well-being, and to what extent are the consequences a direct result of imprisonment? This question is difficult to answer for two reasons. First, most studies are not designed to separate direct and indirect effects (Venema et al. 2021). Second, scholars disagree on how to distinguish direct and indirect effects (Venema et al. 2021). Distilling the direct effect of incarceration (rather than parental separation, for example) is difficult since imprisonment is not a discrete occurrence but rather a continuous process. Therefore, direct effects tend to be defined more broadly to also include processes of separation due to imprisonment (Venema et al. 2021). Still, incarceration does not affect all family members equally, and indirect effects are important in understanding this variation. These effects can be seen as secondary, as they mediate or moderate the direct effect of imprisonment (e.g., family income) (Condry & Smith, 2018).

Some direct effects have been cautiously asserted (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017). For example, studies found that separation by imprisonment led to poorer developmental outcomes compared to other forms of separation (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021). One aspect that contributes to this uniqueness is that imprisonment and arrest often leave family members in uncertainty, which is especially stressful for children (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021). However, most factors in Table 1 are largely interwoven, and several factors have been marked as moderators or mediators.

Demographic factors like age, race, and gender, but also family resilience factors (income, socio-economic status, role in the community, and stability) are known to moderate the effects between imprisonment and negative impacts on well-being (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021). One important aspect here is intersectionality, i.e., that neither imprisonment nor its effects are independent of pre-existing intersecting statuses and patterns of disadvantage (Venema et al. 2021). For instance, Christian (2019) mentions how the burden of care during a family member’s incarceration falls disproportionately on black women, and their experience might be inherently different compared to white men who have a family member in prison.

Furthermore, examples of relevant mediators are whether or not family members experience secondary stigma (Condry, 2011), and the extent to which imprisonment disrupts family functioning (Venema et al. 2021). For instance, Arditti (2018) argues in her Family Impact Framework that the financial disruption related to imprisonment can provoke family instability, e.g., having to move houses, relational termination, and increased stress on caretakers. The quality of parenting is remarked as a mediator, which is also influenced by material hardship and family instability (see Figure 1). Thus, this shows how resourceful, stable families tend to fare better than unstable, disadvantaged families when a member becomes imprisoned (Arditti, 2018). Nevertheless, recalling the remark on non-linearity, the symbiotic harms framework also stresses that the impacts on family members are not necessarily stable throughout time (Condry & Minson, 2021).

Importantly, the fact that these effects are indirect does negate their relevance. Arguably, being aware of the interactions and intersections between pre-existing characteristics and sources of disadvantage is just as crucial and perhaps even more informative than the direct effects. This is because incarceration does not target individuals at random, but works unfavourably towards marginalised groups (Venema et al. 2021). Indirect effects help one to understand how imprisonment can exacerbate existing disadvantage and how family agency plays a role in this. In conclusion, families often experience negative effects following imprisonment of a family member, especially when they start from a disadvantaged position and lack support and resilience to deal with these impacts. The next section illustrates how these effects translate to community-level outcomes.

Figure 1: Family Inequality Framework

Note. Reprinted from “Parental incarceration and family inequality in the United States,” by J. Arditti, 2018, in R. Condry & P.S. Smith, Prisons, punishment and the family: Towards a new sociology of punishment (p. 44), 2018, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Impacts on Community Social Justice

Arditti’s (2018) Family Impact Framework helps to illustrate how harms cascade from a family level to a community level. Importantly, she argues that contextual factors like poverty, familial instability, and parental malfunctioning influence one’s chances of having a family member imprisoned, hence capturing intersectionality. Incarceration can serve to exacerbate this inequality via a range of previously discussed mediators, if the specified protective factors (e.g., support) are not present (see Figure 1). As a result, the disadvantage of certain families is deepened in a de-levelling fashion, a pattern that the symbiotic harms framework would describe as mutually reinforcing. This also impacts macro-level outcomes of income (in)equality, because it stratifies those with an imprisoned family member from those without, and this inequality forms a barrier to social justice (Venema et al. 2021).

While Arditti (2018) focuses on material hardship as the main driver of inequality and social injustice, there are arguably also other sources to be considered. Condry et al.’s (2018) ideas on social justice form an interesting extension on this model. Based on a conceptualisation by Young (1990), the authors move away from the concept of social justice as a mere distribution of material resources, shifting the focus to the “elimination of institutional domination and oppression” (Venema et al. 2021, 30 ). Domination and oppression here mean that there are institutions that influence people’s capacities to live their lives autonomously. Condry et al. (2018) argue that prisons do exactly this since they inflict “systematic disadvantage, oppression and domination on, not only prisoners, but on the families of those who are imprisoned,” and hence threaten social justice (p. 33).

However, this essay argues that the oppression and domination of prisons can go even further. Gust (2012) takes a community-level view on the effects of imprisonment and concludes that the ripple effect carries on well beyond the family level. Taking as a starting point that “incarceration is not equal opportunity” (Venema et al. 2021, 41 ), the impacts of imprisonment on family members become concentrated in certain disadvantaged communities. Gust (2012) posits that such communities with high incarceration rates experience “changes in parenting patterns, employment opportunities, community norms, and local governance, all of which affect residents’ capacity to control their lives” (p. 174). For example, communities with high incarceration rates can experience macro-level stigma, which deters the attraction of new social and human capital, leaving all members at a disadvantage (Venema et al. 2021). Similarly, Wakefield and Wildeman (2014) demonstrated that parental incarceration has impacted inequality in the US as a whole, disfavouring African American populations and leading to aggregate stratification in terms of education and employment, but also health, politics, and family life (Venema et al. 2021). Hence, imprisonment threatens social justice by forming a source of domination and oppression to those directly and indirectly involved, but it also constrains opportunities for community members unconnected to prisoners. Nevertheless, community-level symbiotic harms are also not mutually exclusive with symbiotic benefits, since the removal of dangerous offenders can promote community safety (Venema et al. 2021) and imprisonment offers offenders opportunities to deal with their addiction (Venema et al. 2021) and family issues (Venema et al. 2021), which can help families and communities in the long term. Yet, scholars agree that the community effects are generally negative (e.g., Venema et al. 2021).

These community-level effects are especially worrisome from a symbiotic harms perspective because they are mutually reinforcing in how they shape one’s relationality vis-à-vis the state (Venema et al. 2021). Lee et al. (2014) found based on a mixed-methods study among adolescents in the United States that partners and children of prisoners were less likely to participate in politics (including voting, rallying, and raising political issues) and more distrustful of the government. These patterns are also reflected at a community level (Venema et al. 2021), hence making it harder for the voices of these groups to be heard and deepening their disadvantage. The relationality toward the state is also illustrated from a human rights perspective on social justice. The fact that families and their communities find their lives and liveability impacted by the effects of incarceration even though they have not committed a crime is problematic. After all, there is no justification for extending punishment to those who are innocent (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021), as this goes against a fundamental principle of criminal justice, nulla poena sine culpa (no punishment without fault).


This paper aimed to discuss how collateral consequences impact the well-being of prisoners’ families and the consequences for community-level social justice. It has demonstrated that the consequences of imprisonment for families are largely negative. A framework of symbiotic harms (and to a lesser extent: benefits) shows how this picture is complex and how factors are interrelated. Additionally, it has been established that the effects of imprisonment extend beyond these families to their communities, where they perpetuate patterns of social injustice and inequality. However, the majority of research on this topic comes from Western countries, and future research would benefit from testing the generalisability of these patterns in different national contexts. Furthermore, research has shown that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the symbiotic harms done to families (Venema et al. 2021). More research is warranted to establish the effects of this disruption of contact on family members (specifically children) around the world and how these effects could possibly be remedied, for example, by providing targeted forms of aftercare.

There is little disagreement among scholars that the consequences of imprisonment for families deserve more attention in criminal justice policy and practice. Yet, how can this ambition be reconciled with the current practice? Bogenschneider et al. (2012) acknowledge two challenges: the difficulty for decision-makers to master the complex relationships between family impact and other, ever-changing societal conditions, and the individualistic (offender-focused) approach of the criminal justice system. The case of Invisible Walls Wales (IWW), a prison programme with the primary aim to strengthen and restore family bonds (with the prevention of reoffending as a secondary aim), forms an example of how these challenges can be overcome (Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017)(Venema et al. 2021; Clancy and Maguire 2021, 2017). This intervention includes more frequent and longer visits, social support for family members for up to 18 months (including 6 months post-release), and support for the imprisoned father in a Family Intervention Unit (Venema et al. 2021). Preliminary findings showed improved familial well-being and stronger relationships, which are important in fostering resilience. Furthermore, measures were also tailored toward fostering community inclusion (e.g., by supporting school attendance), hence showing an active engagement towards social justice (Venema et al. 2021). This project, being unique in its prioritisation of the family rather than recidivism prevention, has also recently been replicated in two prisons in The Netherlands. Similar to IWW, fathers resided on special “father wings,” were offered more opportunities for (video and face-to-face) contact with their families, and participated in parenting skills training (Venema et al., 2021). While the formal evaluation of this project is yet to be completed, the preliminary results also show improved family functioning and well-being (Venema et al. 2021).

Programmes like these are applaudable for two main reasons. Firstly, they demonstrate the value of collaboration between scientists and practitioners, including prisons and community agencies, to work towards evidence-based policy and help all parties understand the complexities of the phenomenon at hand. Secondly, it shows that supporting families is not mutually exclusive with the offender-focused paradigm. After all, “one does not have to condone or forgive what an offender has done in order to believe that their partner or child should not suffer as a result” (Codd, 2008, p. 42).


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