Does prison-time alter empathy for family members?

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Going to jail or prison may damage how well African-American men relate to their families—even long after they get out.

For their analysis, the study’s authors compared the mental health of African-American men with at least one incarcerated relative to the mental health of African-American men with no incarcerated relatives.

They found that while a family member’s incarceration was stressful for African-American men in general, the effect largely disappeared once the researchers controlled for the other chronic stressors and coping resources they had in their lives.

“Had we stopped there we would have said, ‘Familial incarceration is a serious issue that affects a lot of African-American families, but it turns out it’s not a unique stressor,'” says study author Tony Brown, associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. “I doubt anyone would have even published the paper.”

It wasn’t until they compared the responses of the formerly incarcerated to those of the never incarcerated that they were able to see how much a difference incarceration made.

Surprising result

The researchers hypothesized that formerly incarcerated African-American men would experience worse mental health than their never-incarcerated peers when a relative was locked up.

The researchers initially reasoned that the firsthand experience of the lack of dignity and isolation of incarceration would make a former inmate feel even worse about a loved one facing the same ordeal than someone who had not experienced it for himself. “It made perfect sense at the time,” says Brown. “What we found was the complete opposite.”

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Not only did former inmates with a relative behind bars cope better than their never-incarcerated peers, but they also experienced better mental health than former inmates whose relatives were all free.

Meanwhile, never-incarcerated African-American men behaved as expected—the ones with incarcerated relatives experienced more distress than the ones without.

The finding, reported in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, was such a surprise that the researchers went back and re-analyzed the data to make sure they hadn’t made any measurement errors or missed any mitigating factors. But they hadn’t.

Possible explanations

So why do former inmates seem to do better when a relative is locked up?

The researchers considered a number of reasons. One theory is that it makes a former inmate feel less isolated. Coauthor Evelyn Patterson, an assistant professor of sociology, notes that there are a number of public policies that can prevent former inmates from restoring their bonds with their loved ones. “In many states, if you have any government housing assistance, you can’t have someone staying in your home who has a felony conviction,” says Patterson. “So your family is taking a risk if they allow you to reside in their residence.”

A former inmate may find, then, that sharing the experience of incarceration may be one of the few remaining ways he can relate to his family after his release. “There is this other family member who is incarcerated, and now you have someone to connect with, or someone who just gets it—who gets why you’re not going to talk about it,” says Patterson. “Because people don’t want to talk about it afterwards.”

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Another theory is that a former inmate may believe his incarceration toughened him up, and that it will do the same for his relative. “There’s a value [behind bars] to having a ‘prison mask,’ this persona of a hard, tough, invulnerable, invincible exterior,” says Brown. “So you might think, ‘Hey, my family member’s going to benefit from that,’ not recognizing that the loss of empathy is a perversion of what we think of as humanity—our emotional connections with one another makes life worthwhile.”

A ‘blind spot’

The researchers note that they could not have discovered this empathy gap had they not treated former inmates as a distinct social group whose shared experience impacts their role in society.

Nor, they say, could they have measured how much pain the imprisonment of a relative caused never-incarcerated African-American men, because the empathy gap of the former inmates had been canceling it out before.

Brown says these findings lay bare a significant blind spot in the way social science research captures the experiences of African Americans. “We can no longer ignore incarceration as a stratifying status,” he says.

The National Institute of Mental Health and the Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research at the National Institutes of Health supported the work.

Source: Vanderbilt University