Children Left Behind: Parental Incarceration in America

Right now, in the United States, close to three million children are growing up with one of their parents, most often their father, in prison. That works out to about one in every 28 kids. For African Americans, the number rises to one in 9.

And the consequences are grave.

According to a recent report of the National Academy of Sciences, children of incarcerated parents are at greater risk of homelessness, aggressive behavior, delinquency, social isolation, depression and learning deficits. Boys tend to struggle the most as well as children who were living with the parent at the time of incarceration.

“The impact on the family, especially children, is traumatic,” said Tanya Krupat, director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, in an article for The Bronx Times. It is no wonder that human rights advocates have referred to parental incarceration as one of the greatest threats to child well-being in the United States.”

Several challenges constrain the ability of incarcerated parents to maintain close family ties—not the least of which is geography. Prisons are often located far away in rural areas, creating significant barriers to visitation for low-income families who cannot easily afford the travel costs. Prison administrators also place a range of restrictions on visitations, limiting the length and frequency of contact, and can charge excessive fees for telephone calls. For some incarcerated parents, their parental rights are terminated after the child is placed in foster care for a specific period of time.

Yet a growing body of research points to the benefits of supporting positive relationships between incarcerated parents and their children—benefits that include improved social and economic outcomes for the child and reduced recidivism for the parent. Since the majority of incarcerated parents expect to be parenting their children upon release, it is critical that policies and programs support opportunities to nurture the parent-child connection.

Last year, Sesame Street launched the initiative Little Children, Big Challenges that offers a range of multimedia materials for children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. Kids can now relate to a new member of the Sesame Street cast, a blue-haired Muppet named Alex, who opens up about his father in prison. “I just miss him so much. I usually don’t want people to know about my dad,” he says in one of the episodes.

At the community level in Wisconsin, the Madison Area Urban Ministry has launched the program “Reading Connections” to give parents an opportunity to read books to their children through recorded video. “He’ll get a chance to know me a little bit,” said Steven Reynolds, one of the fathers, in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. “That’s one of my biggest worries about being in prison: My son not knowing who I am.” 

Along with the video, children receive a letter from their parents and a copy of the book.

Here in the Bay Area, the Berkeley-based nonprofit Community Works offers paid part-time positions for children of incarcerated parents to facilitate training workshops for teachers, social workers, and others who provide services to families affected by incarceration. The concept is simple: No one understands the experience better than the child who has lived it. So far, the organization has delivered 100 trainings in 14 counties in California.

Programs like these exist in communities across the United States. With so many children and families affected by the experience of parental incarceration, these efforts are worth further investment of our public and private sector resources. As US Attorney General Eric Holder said, “People sometimes make bad choices…But we can’t permit incarceration of a parent to punish an entire family.”

Holder is right, but we need to go further to support strong families. Programs that support the connection between children and parents who are behind bars are crucial, and we also need to rethink the policies that lock up so many parents in the first place.

Learn more about programs for incarcerated parents and their families in the Bay Area:

Community Works West, Bay Area

San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents

Alameda County Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership