Supporting Families Separated by Prison Walls

Learning how to ride a bike. Your first childhood crush. Your high school prom. Graduation. Your first full-time job. Your wedding day. Christmas. The birth of your first child.

Life is filled with moments strung together by the images and memories of the ones we love walking beside us. Family forms the basis of our identity, the most foundational institution that government should aim to uphold and protect. Many of us remember or look forward to these notable times in our lives with a smile. Treasured photos help us relive these moments when life is hard, but what if a loved one was missing from these pictures? What if whole albums of your life did not exist because the memories never had a chance to actually form? Instead, the trajectory of your life could have been shaped by a starkly different reality.

The memory of riding your bike is replaced by tears as you witness your parent’s arrest. Your father’s job was instrumental in helping your family scrap by when times were tough, but with his incarceration that income is gone. Maybe your dad was never even in the picture, and your mom, the only stable caregiver in your life, is being sentenced to 40 years in prison. Your memories may now include short stays with your ailing grandmother or an aunt before bouncing from foster home to foster home. Quick reunions with your parent are marked by long drives and sometimes humiliating search procedures. Your parent’s actions seem to create a legacy you never wanted, and stereotypes and statistics seem to threaten any dream to which you could aspire.  

For many children in America, this isn’t an exercise in imagination - it’s reality. Approximately 2.7 million children today are currently struggling to heal from their father or mother’s absence due to parental incarceration. More than half of those incarcerated have a child under the age of 18, with over 1.1 million fathers behind bars.

The negative impact of parental incarceration is particularly concentrated in minority communities - one in nine African American children lose their parent to the criminal justice system. When their parent does return home, it may be too late for daddy-daughter dances or having Mom cheer you on during the big game. The relationship may never be the same – too much time may have passed, or the road to healing may simply seem impassable.

Incarceration has put a metal wall between over five million American children and their parents at some point in their childhood. In a 2006 study, men incarcerated after becoming a father were 76.3 percent less likely to have seen their child in the previous month compared to fathers who had not been incarcerated. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 42 percent of incarcerated parents in state prisons reported having been visited by their child, and 55 percent of parents incarcerated in federal prisons reported a visit with their child. While around 40 percent of people incarcerated in state justice systems are located 50-100 miles away from their home, the average person incarcerated in the federal justice system is sent 500 miles away from home, making visitation increasingly difficult and expensive. Higher levels of reported parental visitation with children in the federal justice system may be due to large variations in the stringency of state visitation policies. Additionally, parents incarcerated in state prisons were less likely than parents incarcerated in federal prisons to have lived with their children a month before or immediately prior to incarceration. This finding suggests that parent-child relationships among this population may have been further strained prior to incarceration, on average, than parent-child relationships experienced by those imprisoned in a federal facility, ultimately making child visitation more unlikely.

The list of negative effects that may result from parental incarceration is long and dismal – child homelessness, financial insecurity, low mental health, early childhood grade retention, stigmatization, social exclusion, and increased aggression, to name a few. Although American children are predominantly losing their fathers to incarceration, maternal incarceration is also becoming more common. Regardless, children with incarcerated parents are losing critical social bonds necessary for healthy child and adolescent development.

Our criminal justice policies are not carried out in a vacuum – how we treat these children today, in part, shapes the adults that they will become tomorrow.

Simply seeing one’s parent arrested can result in early childhood trauma. Low-quality and unstable care from a new caregiver can result in additional pain and impact the future success of these children, particularly in regards to future contact with the justice system, as children with incarcerated parents are estimated to be three times more likely to commit a crime and become involved with the justice system than their peers without incarcerated parents. Their childhood trauma multiplies when the negative experience of parental absence from daily living is exacerbated by jail or prison visitation practices that reinforce parental separation, such as those which allow children to see their parents led away to cells and searched or those which prevent physical contact between child and parent. In some cases, children themselves seem to be treated as prisoners, with long waiting times, crowded visitation rooms hardly suited for meaningful reunions, and uncomfortable body search procedures. While safety should remain a priority, successful visitation policy should account for the possible negative effects on children and family bonding. When visitation procedures and policies are constructed thoughtfully, children may experience greater emotional security and struggle less with misbehavior in school. Prisons must mitigate the impact of parental incarceration through upholding policies that build parent-child relationships and minimize potential trauma.

But building parent-child relationships during parental incarceration isn’t just the right thing to do for children – it’s the smart thing to do for parents.

Separation from one’s children engenders psychological and behavioral consequences for fathers and mothers. Maintaining or, in many cases, rebuilding that relationship is critical to restoring broken families once parents are released – and most incarcerated parents will be released. It’s hard to parent over a telephone, and incarcerated parents in many cases want guidance on how to become better parents. When parents are connected to their children, they have the motivation to change. A 2013 study found that formerly incarcerated fathers that had regular contact with their children during a period of incarceration had a stronger ties with their children when they re-entered society, with positive outcomes soon pouring out into other areas of their new lives. Post-release interviews demonstrated that every one unit increase in reported attachment to children (according to a scale developed by researchers) was associated with an increase of six hours worked per week, on average. Increases in attachment were also associated with lower levels of depression and a reduction in reported crime and arrests. Families and children benefit, as well as society as a whole, when we invest in programs that facilitate these relationships.

Some states and localities have successfully established programs to accomplish these ends of seeking justice for families. “Family-focused” programs within jails in San Francisco and Allegheny County, PA instruct incarcerated parents on parenting techniques through classes, coaching, and opportunities to practice parental decision-making, while enhancing child-parent relationships through “contact” visitation. These programs seek to avoid additional childhood trauma by distracting children from watching incarcerated parents leave through reading time or kid-friendly activities.

A successful Virginia program incentivized fathers to participate in jail programming and a 30-hour parenting class with the promise of a special father-daughter dance upon completion. An article detailing the event showed pictures of young daughters with bright smiles near fathers ready to make their families proud.

Other states have seen success with curricula such as Parenting Inside Out. This program teaches incarcerated parents helpful problem-solving techniques, builds communication skills, and instructs parents on ways to reinforce positive behavior in children, among other things. A randomized controlled study in Oregon found that participants in the program were less likely to commit another crime a year after their release, struggle with depression, or abuse substances, and were more likely to demonstrate better parenting.

Combating the negative effects stemming from parental incarceration may not have an easy answer, but when government and civil society, particularly the Church, partner, positive change can result.

Government must prioritize supporting parent-child relationships during parental incarceration and when parents return home. This can be done through smart policy changes to visitation and contact rules, removing barriers to participation in prison and jail programming, and minimizing the distance between children and their parents by placing parents in facilities closer to home when possible. Incarcerated parents should not have to pay as much as $17 dollars for a 15 minute phone call with their children as they have been doing in states like Minnesota. Children should not have to travel 10 hours for a 30 minute visit with their father or mother if an alternative option is possible.

Rather than leave the plight of incarcerated parents and their children to government alone, civil society institutions must also support and encourage these families during and after incarceration.

With nearly 1 in 28 American children missing a mother or father from their lives due to incarceration, the criminal justice system has hardly impacted a simple few. In states such as Kentucky, the estimated number of children impacted by parental incarceration is 1 in 10. Over 20 percent of children with a parent incarcerated in our state prisons are not even old enough to attend kindergarten. Society must acknowledge these children and the loss they are experiencing, while helping to create stability in their lives. Businesses can expand employment opportunities to formerly incarcerated parents, giving parents a second chance to provide for their families and live a different life. Churches can partner with non-profit organizations through programs such as Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree Program, in which participants can serve as a child’s mentor or purchase gifts on the behalf of an incarcerated parent to help them re-establish a relationship with their child. They can also hold special support groups for children and their families, ease financial burdens, or simply remember to actively include and love these children and remind them of their worth.  

Our criminal justice policies are not carried out in a vacuum – how we treat these children today, in part, shapes the adults that they will become tomorrow.  As Christians, we are called to a higher standard. We are to “remember those who are in prison” as if we experienced what they experience. We are to not sit back in judgment and stigmatize others, but remember that God is the one to whom each of us is ultimately accountable. Our God “does not despise his own people who are prisoners,” and hears their cries. He calls us to promote justice, to “bind up the brokenhearted,” and share the message of freedom inside prisons and jails. Ultimately, He calls us to show humility, grace, and mercy to prisoners and their families.

-Emily Mooney is a second-year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Virginia. Her research includes work on the Virginia juvenile justice system, the relationship between the Opioid Epidemic and the child welfare system, and issues in broader criminal justice policy. She has previously worked with Prison Fellowship and the Heritage Foundation and has participated in programming with the Charles Koch Institute. She can be reached at