American Sociological Association

Imprisoned by Empathy: Familial Incarceration and Psychological Distress among African American Men in the National Survey of American Life

The stress process model predicts that current incarceration of a family member should damage the health status of the inmate’s relatives. We address this prediction with data from the National Survey of American Life, focusing exclusively on African American men (n = 1,168). In survey-adjusted generalized linear models, we find that familial incarceration increases psychological distress, but its effect attenuates ostensibly after controlling for other chronic strains. Familial incarceration remains statistically insignificant with the introduction of mastery and family emotional support and their respective interactions with familial incarceration. However, a statistical interaction between familial incarceration and former incarceration reveals that levels of psychological distress are significantly higher among never-incarcerated respondents whose family members are incarcerated but significantly lower among formerly incarcerated respondents whose family members are incarcerated. We conclude that familial incarceration’s influence on black men’s mental health status may be more complex than extant theory predicts.


Brown, T. N., Bell, M. L., Patterson, E. J.





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