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Exploring the Effects of Incarceration

When Dr. Heather M. Washington first began studying mass incarceration’s effects on families and children, the field was relatively new, she says. As a first-generation student at West Virginia University (WVU), the former McNair scholar began conducting original research on fathering and incarceration.

This undergraduate interest, which includes the family’s role in juvenile delinquency, sparked her current academic journey researching and teaching about mass incarceration’s effects on families and children today.

“This was something that really spoke to me because it was a way that I could marry these two topics that I was most interested in learning more about,” Washington says. “I love to do research. I knew I wanted to do this for a living.”

After completing graduate and doctoral work at Ohio State University, Washington began teaching at the University of Albany, SUNY, in 2012 and transitioned to her alma mater West Virginia University in 2016.

In her current role, she inspires and challenges her students to think critically about neighborhood conditions and culture, incarceration and family as well as their own research interests. She likes exposing students to situations, environments and topics that they “typically don’t think much about,” she says. She even devotes a few weeks in her classes to discuss these issues and, in one class, screens the HBO show The Wire to supplement what students learn about juvenile delinquency in class readings and lectures.

Each semester, students get to delve into Washington’s research, which has built on previous work done around intergenerational transmission of crime from parents to children, exploring the “heterogeneous effects” of mass incarceration and parental incarceration on children’s developmental outcomes.

“We know that incarceration is detrimental to children, but not all children are going to experience incarceration in the same way,” she says. “For example, some children might have more social support available, both in their families and in the community at large, more than would be available to other children.”

Further, Washington’s research emphasis on the link between parental incarceration and fathering seeks to add to the existing literature that there are variations and nuances for measuring fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives. She notes that some fathers may offer instrumental support and be there for their children in ways that do not require financial contribution.

Importantly, her research on children’s feelings and their understanding of their relationships with their fathers is something Washington brings to the current scholarship on parental incarceration and fathering. In addition to an impressive 10 scholarly publications and involvement in departmental committees, Washington is known as a “WVU research superstar.”

“Dr. Washington is the whole package, as they say,” says Dr. Jeralynn S. Cossman, professor of sociology and chair of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at WVU. “One of her most unique projects is examining online blogs of the wives of prisoners to examine trends in their questions/concerns while their spouses are incarcerated. She has done extensive work with the Fragile Families dataset and also is adept at both quantitative and qualitative research methods.”

Washington’s commitment to scholarship and service is also evident in her role on the McNair Scholar Advisory Board, as a peer-reviewer for the sociology discipline and for the American Society of Criminology’s Student Committee and in her participation as an invited speaker at a White House workshop on parental incarceration.

She says that her work has become her activism in many ways, and she doesn’t “know how she would separate” the two. “When I’m doing my research, and I see that there is a problem or if I see there’s a way to help, I’m really doing a disservice to the discipline and to myself and to that population by staying quiet about it,” she adds. “We always need more research, but we also need action.”

In her experience, she finds that it is sometimes “really hard” to convince people that they should help inmates’ families, or, they do not know how or where to start. Washington’s research on incarceration, families and neighborhood culture has allowed her to help and bring awareness to the needs of families and children affected by mass incarceration. And her work continues as a mentor and professor where a goal of hers is to be a “beacon of hope” to first-generation students.

She views her students as “budding sociologists and criminologists” and hopes that they will be ambassadors who “go out and see the world and discuss these issues as well,” she says. “We have to find a way that we can get our research out there in a way that it can be used by people who will use it appropriately.”

Title: Assistant Professor of Sociology, West Virginia University

Tenured: No

Education: B.A., West Virginia University; M.A. and Ph.D., Ohio State University

Age: 33

Career mentors: Dr. Ruth D. Peterson, Ohio State University; Dr. Rachael Woldoff, West Virginia University

Words of wisdom/advice for new faculty members: Be true to yourself always. No one will teach the way you teach. No one will research the way you research. No one will mentor the way you mentor. There is only one you, and you are valuable and important.

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