Kristin Turney, Katelyn Rose Malae, Mackenzie A. Christensen, and Sarah Halpern-Meekin., ““Even though we’re married, I’m single”: The meaning of jail incarceration in romantic relationships,” Criminology, 2023

A jail cell, partially open with two uncomfortable mattresses on a bunk bed. Image by RDNE Stock project from Pexels is licensed under Pexels license.

Almost one in five adult women in the United States is a romantic partner or co-parent with a currently or formerly incarcerated person. In other words, roughly 33 million women in America have had to manage a relationship behind bars. 

Unlike previous studies of long-term prison incarceration, new research by Kristin Turney, Katelyn Rose Malae, MacKenzie A. Christensen, and Sarah Halpern-Meekin asks how shorter-term jail incarceration affects romantic relationships and family structures for women in relationships with incarcerated men. This research addresses a lack of focus on jail incarcerations. Jail sentences often come more suddenly and are less predictable than prison sentences, leaving families less time to plan for the future. 

Turney and colleagues analyzed interview data from the Jail and Family Life Study of incarcerated fathers and their family members. The researchers had three main findings. First, women whose partners were incarcerated in jail felt their relationships were in a period of transition where their roles and expectations were uncertain. Arrests meant that families were suddenly separated for unknown amounts of time. Some interviewees spoke about their partners’ unclear release dates making them unsure of their relationship status and how things might change after release. Many interviewees described feeling both “connected” and “disconnected” from their incarcerated partners, with some describing their relationships as “long-distance” even though they still lived in the same county as their partners. Because of the forced separation, some interviewees even described themselves as newly “single” although they still felt committed to their partners.

“We were kind of at a standstill. We’ve just been dealing with Manny being gone, having to just go through life, I guess, without him. Raising his son, raising my daughter as a single mom. Because that’s what it is. Even though we’re married, I’m single,”

Second, many women whose partners were incarcerated in jails took on new or increased responsibilities when their partners were incarcerated, often becoming their family’s only breadwinners. Being in charge of their family’s finances, women were often responsible for the court fees of their incarcerated partners, creating new, challenging relationship dynamics. Without their children’s fathers, the interviewees also described difficulty in parenting alone, especially when speaking to their children about their partner’s absence. These often led to shifts in how interviewees viewed themselves with some finding a new sense of independence, such as seeing themselves as more positive, self-reliant role models for their children 

Finally, the researchers found that women with partners in jails reevaluated their relationships and priorities. Some interviewees felt the incarceration strengthened their relationships, as they became more committed to their partners. Some described feeling as though their partners focused on them more after being incarcerated which led to their relationship roles becoming more stable.  Others, because of their new responsibilities or the uncertainty of their relationship status, took the opportunity to reexamine their relationships, choosing to focus on themselves and their children while finding their relationships less important and feeling less committed to their partners.

Jail is an isolating experience for those incarcerated but it also affects relationships back home. Turney and colleagues show how separation complicates these relationships and, more generally, how the criminal justice system can impact relationships and inequalities among families outside of jail.