“The biggest thing you can rob is somebody's time”: Exploring how the carceral state bankrupts fathers through temporal debt

Published date01 January 2024
AuthorAbigail Henson
Date01 January 2024
Subject MatterArticles
The biggest thing you can
rob is somebodys time:
Exploring how the carceral
state bankrupts fathers
through temporal debt
Abigail Henson
School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University Center,
Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
Over the last several decades, research has demonstrated the adverse impact incarcer-
ation has on sustaining and strengthening familial bonds. Physical and communication
barriers are often noted as lead sources of strain in relationships between incarcerated
individuals and their loved ones. Studies have shown that the f‌inancial burden of prison
can also have deleterious impacts on the family reintegration process upon release, par-
ticularly for minoritized populations. The current study adds to the discussion on col-
lateral consequences of the carceral state by introducing temporal debt; a novel
concept similar to f‌inancial debt in that it results from oppressive policies and builds
over generations. Findings detail how the carceral state impacts fathersregard for tem-
poral provision and enters Black men into a cycle of temporal poverty. The results
encourage readers to consider novel means of addressing harm and violence to decrease
the perpetuation of familial harm committed by the criminal legal system beyond
reformist efforts that often aim to ease parenting from prison.
collateral consequences, fatherhood, paternal incarceration, time, qualitative
Corresponding author:
Abigail Henson, School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University Center, Arizona State University,
411 N Central Ave #600, Phoenix, AZ 85004.
Email: Abigail.henson@asu.edu
Punishment & Society
2024, Vol. 26(1) 5371
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/14624745231181092
The United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world
(Gramlich, 2021). As a result of political, social, and economic changes, including puni-
tive drug policies, severe sentencing guidelines, and politicized fearmongering, the
number of people in prisons and jails went from about 500,000 in 1980 to a peak of
2.3 million in 2008 (Gramlich, 2021; Nellis, 2021). The hyper-use of prisons and jails
has been particularly detrimental to Black families, as Black Americans are incarcerated
in state prisons at a rate f‌ive times that of whites (Nellis, 2021). In 2018, 13% of Black
children (compared to 6% of white children) had experienced parental incarceration, an
experience shared by a staggering 25% of Black children born in 1990 (compared to 4%
of white children born in the same year) (Wildeman, 2009).
Much of the literature examining the impact of incarceration on families focuses either
on the effects of parental incarceration for children and their caregivers in the community
(Comfort, 2003; Makariev & Shaver, 2010; Murray & Farrington, 2005, 2006;
Poehlmann et al., 2010; Wakef‌ield & Wildeman, 2013), or exclusively on the experiences
of mothers in prison (Aiello & McCorkel, 2018; Huebner & Gustafson, 2007;
Poehlmann, 2005; Turney & Wildeman, 2015). In 1998, Hairston characterized the incar-
cerated father as the forgotten parent.Some research over the last two decades has chal-
lenged this notion by focusing exclusively on the paternal experience (Arditti, Smock &
Parkman, 2005; Charles, Muentner, & Kjellstrand, 2019; Fowler et al., 2017; McKay,
Comfort, Lindquist, & Bir, 2019; Roy & Dyson, 2005; Swisher & Waller, 2008).
These studies use quantitative data to evaluate paternal involvement and fathering
classes (McKay et al., 2019; Nurse, 2002), narrative inquiry to identify barriers to pater-
nal engagement (Comfort, 2003; Roy & Dyson, 2005), and ethnographic methods to
examine practical dynamics of familial relationships upon release (Haney, 2018;
McKay et al., 2019). While this research has identif‌ied the issue of time as a common
motif that is particularly fraught for fathers(Haney, 2022, p.254), few, if any, center
this issue in their analysis.
Over the last several decades studies are f‌inding that an increasing number of men are
conceptualizing fatherhood as being thereand discussing the importance of quality
time in addition to or more than f‌inancial provision (Charles, Muentner, & Kjellstrand,
2019; Fowler et al., 2017; Lewis & Hong, 2020). Participants often describe how
missing out on building shared experiences and memories is one of the biggest barriers
to fathering from prison (Cabrera et al., 2000; Coltrane, 2004; Gerson, 2010; Haney,
2022; LaRossa, 1988; Livingston and McAdoo, 2007; McGill, 2014; Townsend,
2010). Few studies, however, specif‌ically explore how the carceral state, def‌ined by crim-
inal legal practices of stigmatization, incapacitation, criminalization, hypersurveillance,
and marginalization, shapes fathersexperiences of time and regard for temporal provi-
sion (Cochran, 1997; Hawkins & Dollahite, 1997).
The current study informs this gap by examining the process of temporal debt; a novel
concept similar to f‌inancial debt in that it often results from oppressive policies and crim-
inal legal involvement and compounds over generations. Building off Stephen Coveys
(1989) concept of the Emotional Bank Account (see Gottman, Coan, Carrere, &
Swanson, 1998), the temporal debt framework theorizes that every family unit has a tem-
poral bank account that each member can deposit into or withdraw from. While each
54 Punishment & Society 26(1)

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