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 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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
- 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
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
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.
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