Children of Offenders


  • Children of prison inmates have a high risk of being offenders themselves. Their lives are often chaotic, marked by poverty, substance abuse and exposure to criminal activities.  They are also at greater risk for alcohol and drug abuse, poor grades in school and juvenile delinquency.  
  • Thousands of unseen victims are the children left behind by mothers in prison.  Losing a parent to prison often leaves the children poorer.  They may feel ashamed and alienated from friends.  They tend to bounce from one caregiver to the next.  
    • Family visits, especially from their children, boost the women’s morale, and make them more determined to better themselves and never return to prison.  (Would male offenders also respond favorably to visits from their mothers?  The bond of love between gangsters and their mothers is more sacred than their oath of silence.)  

    • Nationwide, more than half of imprisoned parents say they have never had a personal visit from their children.  Family and friends of offenders are encouraged to maintain contact to strengthen family bonds.  Over 60% are incarcerated more than 100 miles from home. 

    • One in 14 children have at last one parent behind bars, and children in these situations suffer from low self-esteem, poor mental and physical health and other problems, a national study says.

      Child Trends, an organization based in Bethesda, Md., released its report Parents Behind Bars: What Happens to Their Children?  The group hopes the findings will prod prisons, schools and lawmakers to make changes that will help young people who have incarcerated parents.

      "The issue of what some people have termed mass incarceration in the United States has really attracted a lot of attention so we were interested in looking at this issue," David Murphey, report co-author and senior research scientist at Child Trends.  "We feel it's important to put this on the radar screen" and help people "realize there's more to it than the adults themselves." 

      "Children who grow up with a parent in prison are more likely to suffer from poor mental and physical health in adulthood."

      Parental incarceration doesn't happen in isolation, as indicated in the report.  Often, children who have had a parent behind bars also have experienced other childhood traumas, such as divorce or living with a parent with a substance abuse problem, Child Trends reports. More than half have experienced divorce, compared to one in six of other children, and more than a third experienced domestic violence, compared with one in 20 of other children.

      The problem is growing, too.  Ten years ago, there were 60,000 children in the country with a parent in prison, said Jiang-Stein, of the unPrison Project which empowers women and girls, and author of Prison Baby: A Memoir.  Today, there are 2.7 million, and that is due to a spike in the rate of incarcerated women, she said. She attributes this to more women responding to domestic abuse. "Addiction and trauma and developmental delays impact every kid that I've said has a parent in prison. Part of it is the loss that no one talks about. And the less we talk, the more damage it is."

      According to Hope for Miami, an organization that advocates for the children of incarcerated parents, such children often experience depression as well as shame at having a parent behind bars. They also are more likely to have encounters with the law themselves, the organization reports. Services to help these children are lacking and too few, the group says on its website.

      Child Trends recommends reducing the stigma tied to having a parent who is incarcerated,
      improving communications between children and incarcerated parents, and making prison visits less stressful for children by creating child-friendly visiting areas and relaxing security procedures for children.

      The organization based its report on data taken from the 2011-2012 National Survey of Children's Health, a telephone survey sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Data was collected between Feb. 28, 2011, and June 25, 2012. The survey included 95,677 interviews.  (Source:  “Report:  One in 14 children has had incarcerated parent,” by Melanie Aversely, USA Today, October 27, 2015)

    • More than 1 in 100 adults, or 2.3 million Americans, were behind bars in 2010.  The United States houses more inmates than the top 35 European countries combined. 

      While one-third of incarcerated parents are serving time for a violent crime, the offenses of the other two-thirds were non-violent, with more than one-quarter of all convictions coming from drug offenses.   All told, 1 percent of all children currently have a parent serving time for a drug crime.

      Because far more men than women are behind bars, most children with an incarcerated parent are missing their father. For example, more than 10 percent of African American children have an incarcerated father, and 1 percent have an incarcerated mother.

      54% of inmates are parents with minor children (ages 0-17), including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. 

      The most alarming news lurking within these figures is that there are now 2.7 million minor children (under age 18) with a parent behind bars.  Put more starkly, 1 in every 28 children in the United States— more than 3.6 percent—now has a parent in jail or prison. Just 25 years ago, the figure was only 1 in 125.

      Children with fathers
      who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school.

      Having a parent incarcerated hurts children,
      both educationally and financially, according to research.  2.7 million children have a parent behind bars - 1 in every 28 children (3.6%) has a parent incarcerated.  Two-thirds of these children's parents were incarcerated for non-violent offenses. 

      One in 9 African American children (11.4%), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%) and 1 in 57 white children (1.8%) have an incarcerated parent.  For black children, incarceration is an especially common family circumstance.  More than 10 percent of African American children have an incarcerated father, and 1 percent have an incarcerated mother.  More than 1 in 9 black children has a parent in prison or jail, a rate that has more than quadrupled in the past 25 years. 

      When a wage-earning parent is incarcerated, families often must scramble to make ends meet. Research shows that more than two-thirds of men admitted to prison had been employed.  Almost half—44 percent—of parents held in state prisons lived with their children prior to incarceration, and more than half of imprisoned parents (52% of mothers and 54% of fathers) were the primary earners for their children.  While in prison, parents are no longer able to provide substantial economic support to their families.   

      U.S. crime policy has, in the name of public safety, produced more vulnerable families and probably reduced the life changes of their children," Christopher Wildeman of Yale University and Bruce Western of Harvard University argued in a 2010 study.  (The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010. Collateral Costs:  Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility: Washington, DC:  The Pew Charitable Trusts.)

    • An incarceration wave during the 1990's pulled in thousands of parents, leaving hundreds of thousands of children effectively parent-less.  In 1991 there were 936,500 minor children with a parent in state or federal prison.  By the end of 1999, there were 1,498,800, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics - more than a 50% leap in less than a decade.   (Bureau of Justice Statistics)
    Statistics
    • An estimated 1 in 28 children have a parent in prison, and l in 4 adults have a criminal history.  (2017)

    • 70% of children with a mom or dad behind bars are likely to end up incarcerated themselves, unless they have positive, adult intervention.
    • About 17,000 inmates have children in Washington State.  
    • About 3,000 children have a mom or dad behind bars in Eastern Washington.  
    • Nationwide, as many as 2.5 million kids (average age of 8) have one or both parents in prison.
    What You Can Do
    • Help children have a nice visit with their parent in prison.  Provide Christmas and birthday gifts for offenders to give to their visiting children.  Provide refreshments for families visiting prisoners on the weekends. 

    • Provide children’s books and blank tapes to prisons, so inmates can record stories to send to their children.  
    • Volunteer to mentor inmates.  Help men and women inmates improve their relationships with their children.  be better mothers and fathers.  70-80% of the male inmates have had no father figures in their own lives.  
    • Mentor a child of an imprisoned parent.  Mentors provide a child with attention and guidance, and a sense of order in a life often defined by confusion and inconsistency.  Mentors increase the child’s likelihood of attending class, performing well in school and graduating.  Mentors also decrease the chance of drug use, as well as self-destructive and violent behavior.  Mentors don’t take away the parent’s role in the child’s life, but just add another support system for the child.  

    Local Organizations
    Additional Resources

    Words Travel

    (program of VOA)
    525 W 2nd Ave.
    Spokane, WA
    (509) 624-2378    
    http://www.voaspokane.org
    VOA’s Words Travel works with men and women in correctional facilities to improve literacy and keep parents in touch with children, strengthening their relationships long distance.  The father reads stories on a tape and sends the books and tape to his child.  The children hear their father’s voice.  In addition, the fathers are encouraged to talk about the stories and relate them to real life.