Jail Media

The Impact of Incarceration on Children

There's no question that having a parent incarcerated can affect a child's development and outlook. Not only is the parent absent for a long period of time, but the child has to deal with the complex notion that sometimes even people they love go to prison. But in what specific ways is the child affected? What can be done to minimize negative outcomes that may result from the incarceration of a parent?

Unfortunately, losing a parent to prison affects multiple aspects of a family's dynamic to varying degrees depending on the family's unique situation, structure and resources. In turn, such a loss can likely have a significant impact on the emotional, psychological, developmental and financial well-being of any children.

Incarceration can be worse for the those on the outside
According to a 1998 study conducted at Yale University and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, "incarceration leads to a loss of income and childcare, increased legal costs, and increased telephone expenses." Following the lives of incarcerated black males from the Washington D.C. area over a three-year period, the study went on to say that the absence of a male role model, and the ensuing sudden changes in family dynamic and the financial strain it causes, can, in fact, injure the families more than the imprisoned individual.

One of the largest obstacles to parenting from prison is distance. Incarcerated parents, both male and female, are typically housed 100 miles or more from their families, according to data collected in 2005 by the Urban Institute, a non-partisan research organization.

More than half of incarcerated parents report never receiving a personal visit from their children. In addition, contact in the form of phone calls and letters often proves problematic as well due to corrections policy. Despite these barriers, nearly 60 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers report having weekly contact with their children while incarcerated, the Urban Institute reports.

Effects by age
The specific effect this sudden separation can have on children varies widely based on a child's age. According to data adapted from Children of Incarcerated Parents by Katherine Gabel and Denise Johnston, if a parent is incarcerated when a child is 0-2 years of age, it can impair parent bonding. During the early childhood years of 2-6 years old, parental incarceration can cause inappropriate separation anxiety, impaired socialemotional development and acute traumatic stress.

For ages 7-10 years old, it can cause developmental regressions, poor self-concept and acute stress. Trauma reactive behaviors as well as difficulty with behavioral limitations can be the result of this situation for children 11-14 years of age. And for the late adolescents 15-18 years old, parental incarceration can cause them to push parental figures away and lead to intergenerational crime.

Minimizing emotional damage to children
There are some ways to minimize emotional damage to children that can be caused by the incarceration of a parent, according to a report presented at the National Conference of State Legislatures in 2009.
  • Remaining family can manage the disruptive effects of a parent's incarceration.
  • Inmates must maintain regular, meaningful contact with their children.
  • Inmates must learn to improve their abilities to bond with their children.
First, remaining family and loved ones can manage the disruptive effects of a parent's incarceration. Minimizing change in the child's life can help him or her cope better by allowing them to remain at the same location (when possible), in the same school, and maintaining the same friendships and caregivers. The report suggested placing an emphasis on placing children with family when possible, as opposed to non-relative foster care.

Second, maintaining regular, meaningful contact between children and their incarcerated parents can help children cope with the inevitable changes. Unfortunately, this can be difficult because some children either never had a relationship with their incarcerated parents or lost contact with them long before arrest, sentencing and imprisonment. In other cases, children might have a relationship with their incarcerated parents but are denied access to them by their custodial parents or relative caregivers.

Lastly, it is integral that inmates learn to improve their abilities to bond with their children. Since most prisoners eventually return to their families and communities, some programs and policies exist with the aim of not merely maintaining parent-child contact during incarceration, but to strengthen the parenting skills of inmates and to provide an opportunity for bonding between incarcerated parents and their children during their imprisonment and beyond.