Paternal Imprisonment and Father–Child Relationships: A Systematic Review

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 4, April 2022, 492 –512.
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© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
A Systematic Review
Verslavingszorg Noord Nederland
Hanze University of Applied Sciences
University of Groningen
University of Groningen
Verslavingszorg Noord Nederland
Hanze University of Applied Sciences
University of Groningen
Although father–child relationships (FCRs) are central to children’s experience of paternal imprisonment, few studies address
this subject. A systematic review was conducted to synthesize the literature on paternal imprisonment and FCRs. Four aca-
demic databases were searched for peer-reviewed studies. Thirty studies were identified. It was found that FCRs most often
deteriorate due to paternal imprisonment, but sometimes remain stable or change positively. Four key factors were found to
influence FCRs: (a) the quality of preprison FCRs, (b) the frequency and experience of father–child contact during imprison-
ment, (c) the child’s primary caregivers’ role in facilitating father–child contact, and (d) prison barriers for maintaining FCRs
during imprisonment. The interplay between these factors is essential for understanding FCRs in this context, which may
explain children’s divergent experiences of paternal imprisonment. An integrated framework of FCRs in the context of pater-
nal imprisonment is presented. Limitations and directions for research are discussed.
Keywords: parental incarceration; parenting; prisoners; social bonds; incarceration
There is mounting evidence that imprisonment of fathers negatively affects their chil-
dren’s behavioral outcomes. The adverse consequences of paternal imprisonment for
children include increased chances of engaging in antisocial and delinquent behavior
AUTHORS’ NOTE: We have no conflict of interest to disclose. This study is part of a larger research project
that is funded by the Dutch Custodial Institutional Agencies. The views expressed in this article are those of the
authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Dutch Custodial Institutional
Agencies. We thank Letty Hartman for her assistance in the search process of the review. Correspondence
concerning this article should be addressed to Simon D. Venema, Verslavingszorg Noord Nederland, Postbus
8003, 9702 KA Groningen, The Netherlands; e-mail:
1033636CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211033636Criminal Justice and BehaviorVenema et al. / Imprisonment & Father-Child Relationships
(Murray et al., 2012), traumatic symptoms (Arditti & Savla, 2013), health vulnerabilities
(Mitchell et al., 2017), stigma (Boswell & Wedge, 2002; Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008), being
at risk for intergenerational transmission of criminal behavior (Besemer & Farrington,
2012), and increased vulnerability to internalizing problem behavior (Boswell & Wedge,
2002; Murray & Farrington, 2008). However, not all research uniformly points to negative
effects of paternal imprisonment for children’s wellbeing and behavioral outcomes (Johnson
& Easterling, 2012).
Although effects of paternal imprisonment are negative on average, many children are
resilient to the negative consequences of paternal imprisonment (Nesmith & Ruhland, 2008;
Poehlmann-Tynan & Arditti, 2018). Some studies even found that most children with an
imprisoned parent fall in a relatively low risk group in terms of behavioral problems and
social competence (Johnson et al., 2018; Kjellstrand et al., 2018; Kremer et al., 2020).
Although these differential consequences of paternal imprisonment for children are increas-
ingly being pointed out by researchers (Arditti, 2012; Haskins et al., 2018; Poehlmann-
Tynan & Arditti, 2018; Turney, 2017), the mechanisms through which these occur remain
understudied (Poehlmann-Tynan & Eddy, 2019).
An important mechanism that may explain the heterogeneous consequences of paternal
imprisonment for children are father–child relationships (FCRs) during imprisonment.
High-quality parent–child relationships and caregiving relationships are thought to be a key
factor for children’s resilience (Masten, 2014) and may buffer the adverse effects of pater-
nal imprisonment. FCRs during imprisonment are important for children’s resilience and
wellbeing (Jones & Wainaina-Woźna, 2013) and have been found to improve postrelease
reintegration of formerly imprisoned fathers and adjustment outcomes for children (Lösel
et al., 2012). However, there are many obstacles that hinder FCRs during imprisonment.
Due to the physical separation of fathers and their children, paternal imprisonment threatens
central components of father involvement (see Lamb et al., 1987/2017); imprisonment
reduces the options for father–child contact, fathers’ physical and psychological accessibil-
ity, and fathers’ options for caregiving and arranging resources for children. During impris-
onment, father–child contact is generally limited to visits and telephone contact, and letter
writing. Imprisonment may disrupt fathers’ experience of their paternal role (Arditti et al.,
2005). A review of studies on imprisoned fathers’ family relationships concluded that rela-
tionships were at risk because of the disrupting effect of imprisonment on fathers’ paternal
identity, the limited options for performing family rituals, and the lack of opportunities for
father–child interaction during imprisonment (Dyer et al., 2012).
Despite the importance of FCRs for children’s resilience, research directly addressing
FCRs in the context of paternal imprisonment is scarce. In this study, we aim to develop a
framework to integrate the findings on FCRs in the context of paternal imprisonment by
conducting a systematic review. The framework may enhance our understanding of the
divergent outcomes of paternal imprisonment for children and may inform the development
of interventions aimed at strengthening FCRs during imprisonment. The review incorpo-
rates the perspectives of imprisoned fathers, their children, and the children’s caregivers.
We focus on father–child relationships and do not include mother–child relationships in
the review because the family processes that are associated with paternal imprisonment and
maternal imprisonment may differ (see Dallaire, 2007a), and because worldwide many
more children experience paternal imprisonment compared to maternal imprisonment
(Glaze & Maruschak, 2010; Philbrick et al., 2014). Compared to imprisoned

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