Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Closer to Home: Estimating the Causal Effect of Prison Visits on Recidivism

Thursday, November 12, 2015 : 9:30 AM
Johnson I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Sarah Tahamont and Shawn Bushway, University at Albany - SUNY
Prison sentences separate incarcerated individuals from their families and communities. This separation may degrade the social bonds essential for successful reentry and desistance (Harding, Wyse, Dobson, & Morenoff, 2014; Maruna & Toch, 2005). However, the effects of separation might be mitigated (or exacerbated) by contact with those outside prison during incarceration. Although inmates correspond with family and friends via mail and phone calls, prison visitation is the focal point of inmate contact with those outside prison (Comfort, 2008).

It is important to note that there are several threats to the internal validity of an observational study of the relationship between prison visits and recidivism and the direction of the bias is theoretically unclear. For example, those inmates who are perhaps the least agreeable may have had less dense social networks prior to incarceration. Those inmates might have received very few visits during incarceration and have a harder time transitioning back into the community post-release. On the other hand, family or friends who believe that an inmate is having trouble in prison may visit more often in order to compensate for the inmate’s troubles; these inmates might have a hard time transitioning out of the prison and will have received more visits during their incarceration. In either case, direct estimation of the relationship between prison visits and recidivism would lead to a spurious correlation between visits and post-release outcomes. 

In this paper, using data from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), we address the threats to internal validity by estimating the effect of prison visits on recidivism using an instrumental variables approach. Some inmates in NY can become eligible for an “Area of Preference” transfer that allows them to move to a prison that is closer to home. Inmates placed closer to home are much more likely to receive a visit (Tahamont, 2013). Inmates become eligible for the program based on a set of observed criteria and eligibility is automatic; however, there is excess demand for placements in medium security prisons near metropolitan areas so inmates are placed on a waitlist after they become eligible. Using random variation in actual transfers, and therefore likelihood of getting visits, we can identify the causal effect of prison visits on recidivism for a group of male, medium security inmates.