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Familial Death and the Penal State: Disadvantaged Fatherhood in an Era of Mass Imprisonment

Wed, Nov 15, 5:00 to 6:20pm, Marriott, Grand Ballroom Salon C, 5th Floor


Of the many forms of civil and economic death experienced by formerly-incarcerated citizens, little attention has been paid to the familial death caused by mass incarceration. Shifting the common empirical focus from women and mothers to men and fathers, this paper offers a first attempt to provide an autopsy of that familial death. On the one hand, it explores how fathers, unlike mothers, are de-familialized through the denial of their roles as parents during incarceration—and how this denial undermines parental bonds and relationships. It then analyzes how this denial extends to post-prison life as more than half of these fathers become enmeshed in another of the largest, most punitive state systems in the U.S.: public child support enforcement, which further mixes punishment, paternity, and finances in their lives. In the process, these state systems end up complicating exactly those relationships proven essential for reintegration after prison: familial connections of care, reciprocity, and interdependence. The paper thus argues that familial death be conceptualized alongside the civil and economic death that social scientists already know so much about—and thus understood as yet another form of the pains of imprisonment.


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