The pseudo-family phenomenon in women's prisons

The female offender population presents unique circumstances for correctional staff. One of the more intriguing of these circumstances is a common coping mechanism known as “pseudo-family” development behind bars.

These pseudo-families can be as large as 15-20 inmates and made up of a variety of races. Interestingly, it is not uncommon to find female inmates who play the roles of mother, father, sister, brother and grandparent.

Family ties
Pseudo-families are not necessarily sexual in nature nor are they gang affiliated. Instead they tend to be formed for a variety of unique reasons including emotional support, economic support or protection.

A crib sits in the cell of an inmate housed in the Wee Ones Nursery unit at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. (AP photo)

A crib sits in the cell of an inmate housed in the Wee Ones Nursery unit at the Indiana Women's Prison in Indianapolis. (AP photo)

In 1972, Professor Esther Heffernan claimed that pseudo-families are formed for economic reasons. Inmates, she said, used the family structure to obtain canteen or contraband items not allowed in prison. Her research, although dated, provided interesting insight into the formation of these families.

Heffernan found that the "families" she studied frequently lived in different dorms and ventured out among the inmate the population to expand their ability to tap into resources. The inmates would regroup and distribute the items amongst members.

Others claim the families are formed to cope with the loneliness and need for companionship during incarceration (Beer, Morgan, Garland, Spanierman 2007). Researchers explain that it is the need for non-sexual relationships that contribute to the formation of pseudo-families in women's prisons. Because incarcerated females are often housed further from home than their male counterparts, they, "commonly experience more isolation from family, friends and life outside of prison compared to male counterparts" (Beer et al 2007). In turn, female inmates have fewer visits than their male counterparts and the formation of a prison family helps them cope with the lack of contact to the free world.

In addition, since female inmates were commonly the primary caregiver of their children on the outside, the longing and loneliness they feel from being away from them is magnified.

Some research says that women tend to be more social than men. In this sense, incarceration can be devastating on their mental health. The formation of a family provides them with a support system inside the facility. Inmates have someone to talk to, seek advice from and learn the ropes of surviving in a prison environment.

The ‘mother’, the ‘father’ and the sexual connection
The "mother figure" is often the inmate who listens and provides advice to the group. She tends to be an older, more experienced inmate; perhaps one who has served a significant amount of time.

Some families do form for more negative reasons like sexual relationships.

In these cases, the dominant female (the inmate who acts/looks more manly) plays the husband and offers protection to the family members in exchange for sexual favors.

Some feel these relationships are formed as part of the inmates' anti-authority attitude. They know the formation of a family as well as inmate on inmate sexual contact is wrong but continue to do it just to defy the institution's management. The formation of the family and the females' openness about it is a way for them to publicly defy staff.

Correctional staff needs to be familiar with the pseudo-family structures forming in their facilities. A more comprehensive understanding of these groups will allow correctional administrators to draw from the positives of these groups while combating the negatives at the same time.


Beer,A, Morgan, R, Garland, J, Spanierman L. (2007) "The Role of the Romantic Intimate Relationships in the well being of incarcerated females". The American Psychological Association, 4, 250-261.

Heffernan, E. (1972). Making It in Prison: The Square, The Cool and The Life. New York: Wiley and Sons.

Selling, L. (1931). "The Pseudo Family". The American Journal of Sociology, 37, 247-263.

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