The Plight of Prison Dads

Nine percent of American men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives, if current incarceration trends continue: the prison population exploded from 300,000 in 1972 to 1,500,000 in 2005. And more than half of all 1.5 million inmates have at least one child under the age of 18.

Professor Marah A. Curtis

Marah A. Curtis

Each year, the majority of individuals released from federal and state prisons are male, black or Hispanic, poorly educated, nonviolent offenders with a history of substance abuse. Many are moving back into households with their partners and children. The impact of incarceration on these fathers’ physical and mental health could have significant implications for the more than 2.4 million minor children with either parent—most are fathers—in state and federal prisons or local jails.

Social Work Professor Marah A. Curtis, whose doctoral and postdoctoral research focused on the impact of public policies on the well-being of low-income families, was shocked to learn how little analysis had been done on the impact of incarceration on health, especially on fathers’ health. Unwed fathers do not appear in most national data sets. Little research is conducted on how incarceration affects men’s long-term health status or is able to account for the fact that men with a history of incarceration are more likely to be in poorer health at the outset. Disentangling poorer health associated with social disadvantage from the impact of incarceration is tricky but necessary.

In 2006, Curtis received a Peter Paul Career Development Award in recognition of her promising research efforts on the impact of public benefits—such as subsidized public housing and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—on vulnerable families. Now, with a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, she is examining the effects of incarceration on the health of fathers, using longitudinal data on urban fathers from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing (FFCW) study. Her project focuses on a sample of urban fathers and information gathered from the mostly low-income, unmarried fathers as well as data provided by the mothers of their youngest children.

“I have to think that what I’m doing has pragmatic relevance on public policy,” says Curtis. “These fathers are a vulnerable group, and we should care about them. Compromises to their health impede their ability to be good fathers.”