The United States has a dubious distinction: although the country has only about 5 percent of the world’s population, our jails and prisons house about 25 percent of the world’s inmates. Between half and two-thirds of those prisoners are parents. In fact, some 2 million American children have a parent who is incarcerated.
Those are depressing statistics. Even more dismaying is the impact of the reality behind them. Children of incarcerated parents face many hurdles. Family income decreases, parent-child bonds are weakened, distractions increase, and difficulties at school multiply. Children with jailed parents may be stigmatized by teachers or school administrators, contributing to low self-esteem. The impact on such kids is long-lasting. They are much less likely to finish college and much more likely than their peers to be involved with the criminal justice system themselves. Furthermore, evidence is building that the incarceration of parents can have a negative spill-over effect on other kids and even on entire communities.
What can be done to soften the blow of parental incarceration? Close relationships with other family members or other responsible adults can help. In addition, kids who are able to visit the jailed parents and have positive experiences during those visits seem to have a better chance at emerging from the incarceration period with fewer problems. Unfortunately, traveling to the prison can be difficult and expensive. If the parent was abusive, the child could be further harmed by the visits.
These are serious challenges, and they are not going away. Americans must find ways to solve them or risk losing a considerable segment of our youth to a cycle of failure and decline.
Image Credit: © Clinton Hussey/Corbis
- Intergenerational Educational Effects of Mass Imprisonment in America
Read the main study about the effects of parental incarceration on American children.
(Source: American Sociological Association; accessed September 30, 2012)
- Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage
This article in Demography explores issues related to the disadvantaging of children affected by parental imprisonment, in terms of the parents’ education.
(Source: U.S. National Library of Medicine, May 2009)
- The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children
This chapter, from a DHHS report titled Incarceration and the Family, examines effects of parental imprisonment on children beyond the realm of education.
(Source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, September 2008)
- The National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated
You can find information and assistance resources for children of incarcerated parents at this website.
(Source: National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated; accessed September 30, 2012)