The Familial Impact of Imprisonment An Exploratory Study Examining How Imprisonment Impacts Upon Family Identities

  • Tracey Hardy

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This exploratory study examines how families of male prisoners serving a prison sentence for committing a serious indictable offence, construct and manage their
identity. A conceptual review of the literature revealed how some families experience a sense of vicarious shame, stigma, and guilt however, until now, there has been a distinct lack of analysis as to how families perceive and manage their individual and familial identities both within and outside their immediate family networks and extended community. The unique feature of this exploratory research is that it reveals how different family members connected to a prisoner understand and present their individual, familial and extrafamilial identity. Only by examining this phenomenon through a variety of familial experiences can the complexity of the impact of imprisonment on family identity, cohesion, relationships and wellbeing be understood.

An interpretive hermeneutic phenomenological approach was used to understand the participant’s individual and collective experience. This qualitative study adopted a purposive sampling strategy and resulted in eleven face-to-face semi-structured interviews being conducted. A duel hermeneutic of data analysis was achieved by combining elements of Smith et al. (2006) Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Framework with Mills et al. (2010) Sensemaking Framework. The key themes that emerged from the interviews were integrated into four co-constructed family case studies.

This study has demonstrated that families of prisoners consciously and unconsciously create alternative biographical scripts to create a more viable and accepted individual and familial identity in the pursuit of a less stigmatised and marginalised identity. Findings from the study also illustrate that neutralizations utilised in families differ depending upon their sensemaking of the event, and that there are distinct gender differences in the way that shame and stigma are experienced. Distinctly, families of prisoners experience both reactive and proactive identity losses due to enforced separation which requires a redefining of past relationships, and a renegotiation of future roles .

The implications show that understanding the ways in which families perceive and manage their individual and familial identities creates an opportunity to work with families and the wider prison community to integrate this new knowledge into family restorative work and educational programmes. Working with the individual and the family to renegotiate and redefine their sense of self could reduce the long-term debilitating impacts of imprisonment and optimise capacity to support one another and the prisoner.
Date of Award21 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorCarla Reeves (Main Supervisor) & Graham Gibbs (Co-Supervisor)

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