Children Of Parents In Jail Or Prison: Issues Related To Maintaining Contact
The following article was featured as the Special Report in the January 2011 issue of OCD's newsletter Developments. To download a PDF of the issue, click here.

In prisons and jails across the United States there are parents serving time for the crimes they committed whose children face hardship and developmental risks as a consequence.

For these children, having contact with their incarcerated parents has been found to have implications for development issues, such as secure attachments and relationships. Others are also affected. Arranging and maintaining contact with inmates can, for example, be a source of stress for the child’s caregiver. And studies suggest that contact with their children can affect inmates in positive ways as well as in ways that can make serving their sentences more

Many small-scale studies have looked at issues related to children’s contact with parents in jails and prisons. Despite methodological limitations, such as small sample , these studies provide some insight into how a parent’s incarceration can affect such issues as a child’s development and behavior, those who care for them at home, and family resources.

The Problem
The past several decades have seen major changes in judicial policies and attitudes regarding incarceration, including "get tough" policies toward drug offenders and mandatory minimum sentences applied to a range of felonies. As a consequence, incarceration rates have risen dramatically since the 1980s.

As incarceration rates rise, so do the number of children who have a parent in prison or jail. More than 1.7 million children had a parent in state or federal prison in 2007, an increase of 80 percent since 1991. Several million more children are estimated to have a parent in local jails. The precise number of those children is unknown because jails, corrections departments, schools, child welfare departments, and other systems do not systematically count them.

In Allegheny County, an estimated 7,000 children have at least one parent in jail or prison, according to a 2005 study by the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation. The study reports that about half of the children whose parents are in the Allegheny County Jail are white, half are African American, and about 75 percent of the children are under 13 years of age.

Research suggests that having a parent in jail or prison increases the likelihood of children experiencing a range of risks, including internalizing and externalizing behavior problems, truancy, substance abuse, school failure, and adult criminal behavior. Poverty, changes in caregivers, and substance abuse by their parents are other risks these children often experience.

Contact With Parents
Most parents serving sentences in state and federal prisons have some form of contact with their children. The most common is mail contact. In a 2007 prison survey, 75 percent of state and federal prisoners said they had mail contact with their children. More than half reported having phone contact with their children, and 42 percent of state prisoners and 55 percent of federal prisoners said they had visits with their children during the time they were incarcerated.

Several factors influence contact between inmates and their children, such as the length of the parent’s sentence, jail and prison policies, and the distance between the correctional facility and the child’s home.

State prisons, for example, house inmates who sentences are longer than one year and are more likely than jails to be located in remote areas farther from the child’s home. Jails are often located closer to where children of inmates live and are typically for short-term incarceration before and after adjudication. Studies suggest that the longer parents are incarcerated the less likely they are to maintain at least weekly contact with their children.

Visitation Policies
Prison and jail policies can influence the quality and frequency of children’s visits with their incarcerated parents. These policies vary across correctional facilities, and are based on security and safety concerns and strategies.

Key policy questions include whether to allow “full” contact visits, which allows physical contact; “open” visits that don’t allow contact but do not involve separating parent and children with a physical barrier; and “barrier” visits, during which children and inmates are separated by a Plexiglas window or other type of barrier.

Most federal and state prisons allow for some physical contact with children, such as an embrace, handshake, or kiss before and after the visit. A survey of local jails in 10 states found that these facilities are less likely to allow physical contact. Some jails do not allow inmates and children to meet in person. Instead, visits take place across a closed- circuit television system.

Research suggests such policies can influence the quality and outcomes of visits. One study, for example, found higher levels of contact with their children associated with lower levels of depression among incarcerated mothers. Those mothers were housed in a single facility that provided child-friendly visitation opportunities. Another study found more visits with their incarcerated parents were associated with insecure attachment among children. Those visits, however, took place through a Plexiglas window in a large, noisy room, and children and caregivers were both frisked before entering.

Recognition of such issues led to new initiatives at the Allegheny County Jail. For example, a family activity center in the jail lobby includes a craft area for children, video nook, book corner, slide, and mock visiting booths to help them prepare for the visit with their jailed parent. The jail also opened a family support center. The program assigns select inmates with children to a special pod where they, their spouses or partners, and children work with specialists on issues critical to strengthening the family that were identified in personal assessments.

Outcomes Of Contact With Incarcerated Parents
Studies that have assessed child outcomes related to having contact with an incarcerated parent generally report mixed findings. However, outcomes appear to be sensitive to several factors, such as the quality of visits and the relationship between a child’s caregiver and the incarcerated parent.

For the incarcerated parents, the research generally reports benefits from having contact with their children. Studies also suggest that caregivers are affected by having to arrange and maintain contact between children and parents in jails or prisons.

Parent-Child Relationships
The relationship between parent and child is important. Studies find that the quality of early attachment is an important predictor of children’s later social and emotional functioning. Studies that examined these relationships as an outcome of contact between children and incarcerated parents offer mixed findings, but suggest the quality of the contact is influential in determining outcomes.

In two studies, for example, visits with parents in correctional facilities were associated with insecure attachment relationships among children ranging in age from 30 months to 14 years. Those visits, however, occurred in prison environments described as not being child friendly.

Research suggests that negative outcomes related to child visits are more likely to be reported when visits are not associated with interventions aimed at improving the quality of child-parent contact and the child-friendliness of the setting. On the other hand, the majority of studies that report benefits from children visiting their incarcerated parents note that the visits occurred within the context of an intervention at the jail or prison focused on raising the quality of contact and making the setting less stressful to children.

In one study, researchers investigated a parenting intervention for fathers in a federal prison and their young children. They reported that children’s self-esteem increased across the 10-week program. One of the features of the program was a weekly parent-child visit during which the fathers would interact and have physical contact with their children in a child-friendly setting.

Other studies have found child-parent contact to benefit the relationships between children and their incarcerated parents. A study focused on incarcerated mothers, for example, found that more telephone calls with their children—but not visits—were associated with the mothers having positive perceptions of their relationships with their children.

Studies also suggest that no matter how difficult arranging and maintaining contact with an incarcerated parent can be, not having contact can result in children having negative feelings about their relationships with their parents. For example, a study of participants in a mentoring program for children of incarcerated parents found that experiencing no parental contact led to feelings of alienation from the parent.

Child Age
Early childhood is a critical time in the development of attachment relationships. A few jails and prisons, where nurseries and other programs are available, have recognized the need for incarcerated mothers to have contact with their infants and young children.

For nearly two decades, for example, a New York correctional facility has had a program that allows incarcerated mothers to live with their newborns for the child’s first year. Among the benefits reported in an evaluation of the program was the finding that infants who lived with their mothers in the prison nursery program for at least one year were more likely to have secure attachments than infants who were discharged from the nursery prior to one year.

Behavior Problems
Studies report mixed findings about the relationship between children’s contact with incarcerated parents and their behavior toward teachers, caregivers, peers, and others.

In a study of 58 adolescent children of incarcerated mothers, researchers reported that fewer instances of school drop-out and suspensions were associated with more mother-child contact, which included phone calls, visits, and letters. However, another study found more attention problems among children when they visited an incarcerated parent more often. Teachers interviewed reported that students often had trouble concentrating in school following weekend visits with their incarcerated parents. Teachers tended to have made more positive comments about the effects of mail contact between students and their incarcerated parents.

Researchers have also found that children may present behavioral and emotional difficulties when visiting a parent in jail or prison, which can worsen an already stressful prison-visiting environment and erode the quality of the interaction between child and parent.

Caregiver Relationships
The quality of the relationship between children’s caregivers and incarcerated parents can be a powerful influence on how often children have contact with their imprisoned parents.

Research has reported, for example, that when this relationship is characterized by warmth, children tend to visit their incarcerated parents more often and speak with them on the telephone more regularly. Studies also report that both incarcerated mothers and fathers are more likely to have contact with their children when they perceive co-parenting arrangements as being strong.

Caregiver Stress
Caregivers have important responsibilities when it comes to contact between children and incarcerated parents. They must often arrangement transportation to the jail or prison, for example, pay for collect calls to inmates, and deal with children’s behavior related to their contact with and separation from their inmate parents.

In one study, caregivers reported both positive and negative feelings about children visiting incarcerated parents or maintaining telephone contact with them. Most caregivers expressed some level of concern that such contact with an incarcerated parent would be detrimental to children. And some caregivers reported that they limited contact between the child and an incarcerated parent because of perceived behavioral changes among children after contact, such as confusion, frustration, and upset.

Another study identified other sources of stress among caregivers. For example, many caregivers did not know how to support children around visits with their incarcerated mothers. Those caregivers identified the behavior of children before and after visits as a source of stress.

Incarcerated Parents
Research suggests several ways in which contact with their children affects incarcerated parents. On one hand, difficulties in arranging and maintaining contact with their children is a source of stress for parents in jail and prison. For example, lost contact with their children is associated with parental identity confusion among fathers. And studies have found that most mothers say separation from their children is the most difficult aspect of their incarceration.

Other studies involving incarcerated mothers report that more visits with their children is related to fewer symptoms of depression and that lower levels of contact with their children lead to higher levels of stress.

In some cases, visits with their children have been associated with inmates experiencing emotional upheaval, anger, and other feelings that can get them into trouble while serving time. One examination of prison records, for example, found that mothers who received visits from their children were more likely to have violent or serious disciplinary infractions. In the same study, women who didn’t receive visits were more likely to either not to commit infractions or commit only minor infractions.

Family Resources
The distance from a child’s home to the jail or prison, and the cost of transportation and long-distance phone calls, can all be key barriers to contact. These factors can also place additional stress on families with limited financial resources.

State prisons can be 100 or more miles from the homes of children with parents incarcerated in those facilities. Many prison and jails restrict telephone contact to collect calls. In both cases, children in families of limited financial resources are at a disadvantage in terms of staying in contact with incarcerated parents.

One study, which looked at the costs of New York families staying in contact with family members in state prisons, estimated that low-income families in the Bronx spent at least 15 percent of their monthly incomes on maintaining that contact.

Policy Considerations
The majority of studies have generally found that both children and their incarcerated parents benefit from maintaining some form of contact.

Research also shows that contact between children and their inmate parents is a complex issue. A review of the research suggests that contact between children and incarcerated parents is related to a number of factors ranging from the inmate’s relationship with the child’s caregiver to family economic resources and jail and prison policies. And the key factor determining the outcomes of visits between children and incarcerated parents is the quality of those visits.

Policy considerations for improving the frequency and quality of contact between inmates and their children include the following.

  • A child’s early months and years are critical to developing secure attachments. Jail and prison interventions that address this issue include a New York program that allows mothers to live with their infant during the child’s first year, which has shown positive outcomes in terms of building secure attachments.
  • Limited family resources is a barrier to visitation. Prisons are often located far from a child’s home. And some jails and prison require families to pay for collect phone calls in order to stay in contact with an incarcerated parent. Interventions that help offset transportation costs or changes in telephone contact policies are examples of steps that might encourage more frequent child-parent visits.
  • Stress experienced by a child’s caregiver and strained relationships between caregiver and an incarcerated parent discourage regular contact between inmates and their children. A positive relationship or parenting partnership, on the other hand, has been found associated with more frequent visits, suggesting the benefits of programs that help caregivers deal with stress and communicating with incarcerated parents.
  • Remote forms of contact, such as letters and phone calls, have been associated with positive outcomes and are a particularly important vehicle for allowing children to stay in contact with a parent incarcerated far from home. Technologies, such as text messaging and e-mail, offer new opportunities for remote contact.

Finally, studies report that when visits between children and their incarcerated parents occur within the context of an intervention aimed at improving the quality of the visiting experience, positive outcomes are more likely to result, such as better parent-child relationships, a lower likelihood of children feeling alienated from their incarcerated parent, and fewer symptoms of depression among incarcerated mothers.

However, interventions such as nurseries inside correctional facilities and programs that enhance the visiting experience of children are not staples in prison and jails around the country. In fact, local jails are more likely to restrict physical and face-to-face contact between parent and child. In doing so, research suggests correctional institutions are missing opportunities to offer inmates and their children experiences that could benefit both and help strengthen their families.


Poehlman, J., Dallaire, D., Booker Loper, A., & Shear, L.D. (2010). Children’s contact with their incarcerated parents: Research findings and recommendations. American Psychologist, (65) 6, 575-598.

This Special Report is largely based on the above-referenced publication. It is not intended to be an original work but a summary for the convenience of our readers. References noted in the text follow:

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