Avon Hart-Johnson’s research looks at the effect of imprisonment on the entire family. (Courtesy Photo)

Convicted felons are not the only ones who feel the isolation of physical imprisonment while incarcerated. According to Avon Hart-Johnson, a Walden University doctoral program graduate, the families of the convicted felon suffer similarly, and not just the grief of the loss.

The sentence, Hart-Johnson said, separates the families through a psychological and physiological imprisonment that perpetuates a loss of productivity and health problems, including stress, hair loss, migraines, and weight fluctuations. This is magnified by the state of isolation and grief of losing a loved one through forced separation. She said this grief is not socially acceptable. “I found when you hide that kind of pain, it has a tendency to manifest itself,” she said.

Hart-Johnson stumbled upon this undiscovered impact of the American prison system during her research study for her doctoral dissertation titled, Symbolic Imprisonment, Grief, and Coping Theory: African American Women With Incarcerated Mates. Her work focused on mostly women, in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, with incarcerated spouses and lovers.

Part of the problem in D.C. is that the criminal justice system has a disproportionately high number of African-Americans convicts. A 2014 Prison Policy Initiative report said, “Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites.”

According to Hart-Johnson’s dissertation abstract, 90 percent of felons sent to prison from D.C. are African American. There have been no local prisons in the area since Lorton Correctional Complex closed in 2001, in adherence with the National Capital Revitalization and Self Government Improvement Act of 1997.  The act stipulates that sentenced prisoners from D.C. are transferred to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, where they can be placed within any correctional institution within the country.

This isolation goes farther than the loss of a male lover. It expands to the woman’s family and other individuals. These women also face coping with the household expenses alone – including the additional cost of traveling long distances to see their loved one in prison – a loss of safety and security, and a feeling of stigmatization for the entire family. “These women are walking around with all of this,” Hart-Johnson said.

“We were an incarcerated family,” one of Hart-Johnson’s subjects told her during the study. Another woman said “ like I’m grieving over someone died. You know, he’s right there, he is alive. But that’s how I feel sometimes. I do feel like in essence he is gone.”

Hart-Johnson said she embarked on answering why African-American women were affected by consequences of mass incarceration. “I knew then, that my current and future commitment would be to first understand the problem, and second to advocate for these women through my continued research in the future,” she said.

From her research results, Hart-Johnson plans to provide the information at various conferences, churches, and other venues to raise awareness about the familial consequences of long distance incarceration. “We’ve got a phenomenon that may be bigger than what we think,” Hart-Johnson said.

She also wants to conduct a post-doctorate study to explore how other populations are affected by non-death related grief due to separation. “My hope is that the world will begin to not hold the family and the children accountable for a sin that they did not commit,” she said.

To read Hart-Johnson’s dissertation, visit http://gradworks.umi.com/36/70/3670212.html.