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Book Review | Holding On: Family and Fatherhood During Incarceration and Reentry

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Published onApr 01, 2020
Book Review | Holding On: Family and Fatherhood During Incarceration and Reentry

Tasseli McKay, Megan Comfort, Christine Lindquist, and Anupa Bir. Holding On: Family and Fatherhood During Incarceration and Reentry. University of California Press, 2019; 212 pp.; ISBN: 9780520305250.

The impact of incarceration on families has received increased focus over the past 20 years. The bulk of examinations have narrowed in on the impact of parental incarceration on children (see Wakefield & Wildeman, 2013), the impact of incarceration on parenting (see Hairston, 2002), and the impacts of incarceration on the partners of those incarcerated (see Roy & Dyson, 2005; Turney, 2015). All of this suggests that family functioning is disrupted during periods of incarceration. Despite this, a large proportion of the literature on family relationships during and after prison focuses on incarcerated mothers (see Ferraro & Moe, 2003; Enos, 2001). Given that over 90 percent of people serving time in prison are male (Carson, 2018), the lack of focus on fatherhood means that we know very little about the family experiences of a majority of people involved with the justice system. Further, the identities of prisoners and fathers are often seen as distinct, limiting how we examine and provide services for people in prison and their families. The goal of Holding On is to bridge these gaps in the current literature and provide an in-depth, mixed-methods examination of fatherhood and partnering through incarceration and release. 

To accomplish this goal, McKway and colleagues utilize a novel dataset, the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting, and Partnering. Beginning in 2008, this was a ten-year study involving over 1,900 incarcerated men and over 1,400 partners across five states. The study was originally designed to understand the impact of prison programming and services on family functioning, relationships, and release outcomes for couples experiencing incarceration. The sample includes families who were involved in family-strengthening programming and a comparison group of those who were not. Interviews were conducted over 18 months, with a subsample of individuals participating in continued interviews and in-depth qualitative interviews at 34 months. Thus, the quantitative data contain information to make generalizable statements about the families involved, and the qualitative data bring to light the more intimate and complex issues these families face. 

The first chapter, Returning Incarcerated Fathers to the Family, makes a case for an extensive examination of fatherhood among those serving time in prison and returning to the community. In the context of families and incarceration, two distinct and separate systems are involved in the lives of families – the criminal justice system, with a focus on the offender, and the welfare and social services system, with a focus on the well-being of families. There is little interaction in practice between the two systems, even though the failure to consider families and people in prison misses critical areas for intervention. These areas for intervention are described in the context of current research, highlighting findings related to contact and programming during and after incarceration aimed at improving families and relationships within them.

Chapter two, “Always Having Hope”: What We (Didn’t) Know about Fatherhood and incarceration, finds that family functioning and support during incarceration are essential for parenting after release. Fathers also reported that parenting after release was important for providing structure and hopes in their lives at a time where other aspects of their lives are tumultuous at best. The chapter concludes with important implications for policy and programming, particularly programming in prison and the community, which take into account risk and protective factors of both the individual and the family. 

The following two chapters discuss the realities of partnering for families with a father transitioning to the community. The third chapter, “I do, but I Don’t, Know Where We Are”: Couple Relationships during Incarceration and Reentry, expands upon prior literature by examining how reentry influences relationships and how couples experience this transition. The findings demonstrate that relationships tend to deteriorate during incarceration, and problems during incarceration tend to extend into the reentry period as well. Chapter four, “None of the Above”: Partner Violence and the Limitations of Research, reveals that histories of physical and emotional abuse are common among partners of justice-involved men. Altogether, the findings emphasize a call for increased access to domestic violence services and programming for families and encourage researchers to consider the constraints to disclosing these experiences. 

The remainder of the book focuses on outcomes and next steps. The fifth chapter, “Change Ain’t Going to Happen Overnight”: Operationalizing Reentry Success, presents a multidimensional approach to success after release from prison. While men in the sample largely avoided returning to prison, they encountered difficulties in other domains of life, such as employment or positive partnering relationships. Chapter six, “A Breakthrough Type of Thing”: Measuring the Impact of Family Strengthening Program during Incarceration and Reentry, finds that the couples-based strength training program demonstrated positive treatment effects in one of four sites. Despite the lack of widespread positive findings, the examination highlights the need to consider the implementation context of the program when providing services to families within and outside of prison. The book closes with chapter seven, On the Horizon: The Social Science of Incarceration and Family Life, which emphasizes the need for expanding supports and improving relationships within families. Further, the chapter highlights the need for novel and holistic data collection techniques to understand the complexities of fatherhood and family life in the face of prison and reentry as best as we can. 

Holding On is an important contribution to the literature on the intersection of incarceration and family life. The authors were able to provide a detailed, holistic picture of fatherhood and partnering during incarceration and reentry. Speaking to policy, each chapter of the book contains tangible recommendations for services, interventions, and supports that can improve the lives of justice-involved families. Further, the detailed information about The Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting, and Partnering provided in the book allows other researchers to replicate or expand upon the findings presented to continue to advance the literature on fatherhood and family life. McKay and colleagues (2019) conclude their book by asking, "[w]hat could we achieve if the resources now devoted to the competing tasks of punishment and protection were focused, instead, on the singular goal of lifting up the most vulnerable among us?" (p.139).


Carson, E. A. (2018). Prisoners in 2016. (Report No. NCJ 251149). U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Enos, S. (2001). Mothering from the inside: Parenting in a women’s prison. State University of New York Press.

Ferraro, K. J. & Moe, A. M. (2003). Mothering, crime, and incarceration. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32, 9-40.

Hariston, J. C. F. (2002). Prisoners and families: Parenting issues during incarceration. From Prison to Home, 1, 42-54.

Roy, K. M. & Dyson, O. L. (2005). Gatekeeping in context: Babymama drama and the involvement of incarcerated fathers. Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research & Practice about Men as Fathers, 3, 289-310.

Turney, K. (2015). Hopelessly devoted? Relationship quality during and after incarceration. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77, 480-495.

Wakefield, S. & Wildeman, C. (2013). Children of the prison boom. Oxford University Press.

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