Parents Behind Bars: What Happens To Their Children?”

According to a report from Child Trends: “Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?” (October, 2015 by David Murphey and P. Mae Cooper), there are more than five million U.S. children who have had at least one parent in prison at one time or another—about three times higher than earlier estimates that included only children with a parent currently incarcerated. The report uses the National Survey of Children’s Health to examine both the prevalence of parental incarceration and child outcomes associated with it. Based on their analyses, they found that more than five million children, representing seven percent of all U.S. children, have ever had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison. These figures should not come as a surprise, when we consider that, in 2013, there were 1.6 million people held in prisons in the United States. U.S. incarceration rates, although they have been declining recently, exceed those of any other reporting country. This proportion is higher among black, Hispanic, poor, and rural children. Their figure of more than five million is almost certainly an underestimate, since it does not include children with a non-residential parent who was incarcerated. This is important new information. In 2007, the most recent point- in-time estimate, 1.7 million children, or just over 2 percent, had a parent (including non-residential parents) currently in prison.

Who experiences parental incarceration? One in 14 U.S. children. According to their parents, nearly seven percent of children in the United States have lived with a parent who was incarcerated at some time after the child’s birth. Among children younger than 6, the rate is 5 percent. Among those ages 6 to 11, and 12 to 17, the rate is 8 percent each.

Recently, leaders across the political spectrum have begun to re-examine the policies that led to the massive growth in incarceration over the last generation. Incarceration is costly, the evidence for its deterrence value is mixed, and it has disproportionately affected people who are poor and black, exacerbating existing social inequities.

There is also increased attention being paid to the negative effects of incarceration on already-disadvantaged communities. For example, some researchers have argued that by reducing neighborhood human capital, high incarceration rates (as well as poorer employment prospects after release) contribute to community unemployment, as well as to a decline in prospects for marriage or other committed adult relationships.5

In many communities in the United States today, considerable numbers of children may experience a residential parent going to jail or prison. The great majority of incarcerated parents (99 percent) are fathers. However, the number of women in prison and their percentage of the incarcerated population have both been growing. Maternal incarceration can be especially hard on a child, because mothers are more likely to have been the primary caregiver. For the large subset of prisoners who are parents, incarceration poses unique challenges. There are the obvious difficulties in maintaining parent-child relationships during the period of incarceration, but there are other problems as well, both during imprisonment and following release. These affect the incarcerated parent, their children, and the caregivers of those children. Incarceration can mean the loss of that parent’s income; it strains marital relationships and frequently contributes to divorce.

Among the countries included in this analysis are the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain, Germany, and Australia. Data are as reported to the International Centre for Prison Studies.

Research indicates a higher number of other major, potentially traumatic life events—stressors that are most damaging when they are cumulative; more emotional difficulties, low school engagement, and more problems in school, among children ages 6 to 11; and a greater likelihood of problems in school among older youth (12 to 17), as well as less parental monitoring.

Reducing the stigma these children experience … may alleviate some of the negative effects of this separation?which include asthma, depression, and anxiety; acting-out behavior; grade retention; stigma; and, in adulthood, an increased likelihood of poor mental or physical health and dropping out of school.

In some cases there can be positive effects when a parent is incarcerated, namely, when the parent is abusive or otherwise poses a danger to the child (through substance abuse, for example). Nonetheless, most research finds negative outcomes associated with incarceration.

Incarceration is expensive not just in economic terms, but also in its emotional and psychological impact on children. Previous research has found connections between parental incarceration and childhood health problems, behavior problems, and grade retention. It has also been linked to poor mental and physical health in adulthood. While the best long-term solution may be to reduce reliance on imprisonment as a sanction for some categories of criminal behavior, there may also be ways to mitigate the harm of parental imprisonment for children. Research on interventions for children with incarcerated parents is limited, but work so far suggests that reducing the trauma and stigma these children experience, improving communications between the child and the incarcerated parent, and making visits with the incarcerated parent more child-friendly may alleviate some of the negative effects of this separation.