Virtually all prisons make some arrangements for inmates to maintain some social ties with the outside world. These usually include allowing visitors and mail, permitting telephone calls in emergencies, and providing for home furloughs. In an international survey of 28 countries by Cavan and Zemans, all were found to provide at least for the visiting of spouses. l/ In all these countries a trend was also noted toward the expansion of family contacts. Not much is known, however, about the frequency of the contacts with the outside world of the inmates in any prison system or who these contacts are with. There are two studies which deal with this matter in a limited way. Sykes concluded, after studying a sample of records covering a one-year period, that “41 percent of the prisoners in the New Jersey State Prison had received no visits from the outside world.” 2/ Using a self-reporting technique with questionnaires, Glaser found that most federal prisoners sampled described the frequency with which they received letters from family and others as “very often” or “often,” suggesting a high level of satisfaction. These same inmates reported sending and receiving two or more letters a week from minimum and medium security institutions and one or two letters per week from penitentiaries. 3/ However, no data were available on the differences in the correspondence activity of various inmate groups.

Two basic characteristics, marital status and ethnic group membership, have generally been found to be important determinants of social relationships. Marriage brings with it a new and complex network of relations in the form of in-laws and requires a restructuring of existing family ties. Less time is available for parents, while brothers and sisters share time with the in-laws. The addition of children further alters these interactions. A number of authors have suggested the existence of different family structures among various ethnic groups. In the present study our population consists of inmates from white, Mexican-American and Negro backgrounds, therefore it seems worthwhile at this point to review the literature on family structure in these groups.

Ethnic Background and Patterns of Contact

Frazier, in his classic book on the Negro family, traced these patterns back to emancipation, the slavery period, and pre-slavery times on the African continent. 4/ More recently the Moynihan Report has related the structure of the Negro family, particularly its matriarchal character, to various difficulties Negro migrants to urban areas have experienced. 5/ Jackson, however, has challenged this emphasis on the matriarchal nature of the Negro family. In a study of Negro male “heads of household,” he found that their valuation of family life and the accompanying role expectations varied little from that of white males. 6/ It can be argued, however, that male Negro “heads of household” represent only the more conventional part of the population, and thus in Jackson’s study the question of the frequency of matriarchal family structures is left unanswered. To the extent that such matriarchal structures exist, they should be represented in the families of Negro prisoners, since they are recruited predominately from urban ghettos.

The structure of Mexican-American families has not been extensively investigated, but several good accounts, e.g., Lewis 7/, are available of family structure in Mexico. The structure of families in Mexico is generally described as patriarchal, with the father being somewhat distant and autocratic, while the mother assumes virtually all responsibility for the day-to-day child rearing. Godparents also play a much greater role on the child’s life.

These differences in family structure should be reflected in the patterns of contact that inmates from the various ethnic groups have with their families. In the analysis of the relationship between ethnicity and family contacts is this report, data are presented only for white, Mexican-American, and Negro inmates. Nine percent of the original study group were from other or unknown ethnic backgrounds and were not included is this part of the study.

Table 5 presents the number of family and friends with whom inmates from the various ethnic groups maintain contact. All groups seem to maintain reasonably extensive relationships with the outside world. Although one-third of the inmates had received no visitors, only one out of ten had not received correspondence.