Skip navigation
Disciplinary Self-Help Litigation Manual - Header

Justice Strategies Report on Children of Prisoners 2011

Download original document:
Brief thumbnail
This text is machine-read, and may contain errors. Check the original document to verify accuracy.
Justice Strategies, a project of the Tides Center, Inc., is a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization. Our
mission is to provide high quality policy research to advocates and policymakers pursuing more humane and
cost-effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration law enforcement.
Electronic copies of this and other Justice Strategies reports can be found online at www.justicestrategies.org

ACknOwlEdgmEnTS
we are extremely grateful to the many individuals (youth, mothers, fathers, caregivers, counselors, social
workers and teachers) who contributed their time to give life to this research. we have tried to faithfully
convey their experiences, insights and concerns as we received them firsthand. For reasons of
confidentiality, we are unable to acknowledge them by name but we thank them for their invaluable
contributions.
Anjuli Verma contributed countless hours to drafting, editing, and giving the report a unified voice – all
critical to the success and goals of the report. The authors also wish to thank néstor Ríos for his
instrumental role in guiding this report to its final destination and kathy kilgore, of Printech, Inc. for her
design expertise. A special note of thanks goes to laura Jones and matt nelson for their media savvy
insights into the preparation and rollout of the report.
Over the course of our research on this complex and important topic, many people made generous
contributions of time, advice, expertise, insights, and wisdom. They helped facilitate data rich focus groups
and interviews, the evidence of which is prevalent throughout our report. The authors offer special thanks
for their help with this report to Tanya krupat, makeba lavan, davian Reynolds, Tina Reynolds, Tanesha
Ingram, Sarah From, Paula Fendall, Shannon Schmildt, Jessica Berlin, Carol Shapiro, georgia lerner, Tammy
white, Carol Potok, lisa Poris and dwight Brooks. we would also like to acknowledge the staff of the
Fortune Society (nY), the Children of Incarcerated Parents Program (CHIPP) at the nYC Administration for
Children’s Services, new York Youth At Risk, Family Justice (nY), Osborne Association (nY), Aid to
Incarcerated mothers (AIm) in Al, women’s Prison Association (nY), kilby Correctional Facility, montgomery
women’s Facility (Al), dunbar-Ramer School (Al), Highland gardens Elementary School (Al), Alabama
department of Corrections, and women on the Rise Telling her Story (wORTH) for their contributions to the
report and their tireless advocacy.
This report's extensive research would not have been possible without generous support from the
marijuana Policy Project. The Ford Foundation has also provided support for its production and distribution.
we thank them both for the trust they have placed in us to judiciously utilize these resources.
Patricia Allard and Judith greene, co-authors.

table of contents
Children on the outside:
VOICING THE PAIN AND HUMAN COSTS OF PARENTAL INCARCERATION

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY...............................................................................................................................i

I. INTRODUCTION: ......................................................................................................................1

II. VOICING THE PAIN AND HUMAN COSTS OF PARENTAL INCARCERATION ...............5
A. Relevant criminological frameworks ....................................................................................6
B. Costs to the child’s sense of stability and safety ....................................................................8
Compromised educational experience .........................................................................................10
Threat to stability and home.......................................................................................................11
Separation from siblings .............................................................................................................11
Recommendations .....................................................................................................................12
C. Costs to the child’s economic security................................................................................13
Loss of parental support.............................................................................................................13
Increased poverty ......................................................................................................................13
Caregiver strain and accompanying child strain ..........................................................................14
Risk of getting involved with drugs..............................................................................................15
Recommendations .....................................................................................................................17
D. Costs to the child’s sense of connectedness and worthiness ................................................17
Susceptibility to peer pressure and risky behavior.........................................................................18
Social stigma and shame ............................................................................................................19
Risk of involvement with the criminal justice system....................................................................22
Recommendations ...................................................................................................................23
E. Costs to the child’s attachments and ability to trust ............................................................24
Diminished ability to establish stable lives as adults......................................................................24
Strained relationships with caregivers..........................................................................................25
Loss of contact with parent ........................................................................................................26
Not knowing the truth about a parent’s incarceration..................................................................27
Recommendations .....................................................................................................................28

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

table of contents

F. Costs to the child’s sense of having a place in the world ......................................................28
Apathy......................................................................................................................................29
Becoming adults before their time ...............................................................................................30
Anxiety about aging grandparents ..............................................................................................31
Having to start over...................................................................................................................32
Yearning for mother and father figures ........................................................................................33
Recommendations .....................................................................................................................34
G. Costs to the child’s community..........................................................................................35

III. RECOMMENDATIONS: .........................................................................................................37
A. Alabama: ‘get tough’ policies, in whose best interest?................................................................37
B. New York: downsizing prisons through drug reform..................................................................39

IV. CONCLUSION .............................................................................................................. ..........44

ABOUT THE AUTHORS ................................................................................................... ..........45

EXECUTIVE SUmmARY
Children on the outside:
VOICING THE PAIN AND HUMAN COSTS OF PARENTAL INCARCERATION
January 12, 2011
The pain of losing a parent to a prison sentence matches, in many respects, the trauma of losing a
parent to death or divorce. Children “on the outside” with a parent in prison suffer a special stigma. Too
often they grow up and grieve under a cloud of low expectations and amidst a swirling set of
assumptions that they will fail.
Fifty-three percent of the 1.5 million people held in U.S. prisons by 2007 were the parents of one or
more minor children. This percentage translates into more than 1.7 million minor children with an
incarcerated parent.
African American children are seven and Latino children two and half times more likely to have a
parent in prison than white children. The estimated risk of parental imprisonment for white children by
the age of 14 is one in 25, while for black children it is one in four by the same age.
Previous research has shown a close yet complex connection between parental incarceration and
adverse outcomes for children, including:
• an increased likelihood of engaging in antisocial or delinquent behavior, including drug use;
• an increased likelihood of school failure;
• an increased likelihood of unemployment, and;
• an increased likelihood of developing mental health problems.
Policymakers and the public must take such findings seriously. They also need to understand the real
costs of mass incarceration on children and the communities in which they grow up. Too often, society
dismisses the children of incarcerated parents as future liabilities to public safety while overlooking
opportunities to address the pain and trauma with which these children struggle. It is by tackling the
psychological and emotional trauma head-on that we not only aid these children to grow into our
future mothers, fathers, taxpayers and workers, but also ensure more stable and thriving communities.

kEY FIndIngS
Our report is based on eight two-hour focus groups – with eight to twelve participants in each group
– and 18 structured interviews conducted in New York and Alabama with children of incarcerated
parents, parents currently behind bars, caregivers, and caseworkers and counselors who work in
programs to assist parents re-entering society after prison terms. In our study we document the high
costs of parental incarceration, largely in the words of those most directly affected, the children.

i

1. An undermined sense of stability and safety – The sudden removal of a parent from daily life
fundamentally undermines a child’s sense of stability and safety. Interview subjects highlighted the
following characteristics and effects:
• Compromised educational experience
• Threatened stability to home
• Separation from siblings

“

[Children] experience a sense of abandonment when parents go to prison – one day the
parent is there and the next the parent is gone. Depending on the age, they’ll take it
personally. They think they did something wrong; one day they were mad at their mother
and wish she was dead and now she’s far away.
Jessica, family service provider

”

2. Threats to economic security – Parental incarceration, unsurprisingly, impacts the economic
circumstances of children and the extended family. Interview subjects highlighted the following
characteristics and effects:
• Loss of parental support
• Increased poverty
• Caregiver strain and accompanying child strain
• Risk of getting involved with drugs to earn money

“

My daughter was about to graduate from high school. She was heading to college but for my
incarceration because I was the primary source of financial support. Now, she’s working
instead. My kids have always been middle class. Now for the first time in their lives they’re
living in poverty. They understand what a single parent life is like for them.
Carl, incarcerated father

”

3. A compromised sense of connectedness and worthiness – Parental incarceration presents
significant obstacles to a child’s experience of the kind of unconditional bond with parents needed
to lay the foundation for a stable adult life. Interview subjects highlighted the following
characteristics and effects:
• Susceptibility to peer pressure and risky behavior
• Social stigma and shame
• Risk of involvement with the criminal justice system

“
ii

…if kids have no parents, or are left with just one parent who is totally overwhelmed, the
youth may feel that no one cares enough to worry about them; that they aren’t worth making
sure he or she is home by a certain hour. ‘I could vanish and nobody would know or care.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child welfare caseworker

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

”

4. loss of attachments and ability to trust – Once the parental presence is removed, many young
people have trouble trusting others and letting caring adults into their lives. Interview subjects
highlighted the following characteristics and effects:
• Diminished ability to establish stable lives as adults
• Strained relationships with caregivers
• Loss of contact with parent
• Not knowing the truth about a parent’s incarceration

“

A lot of the young people I work with don’t build close relationships. If your parents were
taken away from you, why bother with others? What’s to keep a friend being a friend, or
stop a girlfriend from cheating on you?
Makeba, 24 year old university student, advocate whose mother was formerly incarcerated

”

5. no sense of having a place in the world – Children typically experience parental incarceration as
a form of rejection; they see the parent’s reckless behavior as having taken precedence over their
family. Interview subjects highlighted the following characteristics and effects:
• A pervasive sense of apathy
• Struggling to become adults before their time
• Anxiety about aging grandparents
• Challenges related to having to start over
• Yearning for mother and father figures

Ultimately, these painful costs to the estimated 1.7 million children with incarcerated parents translate into a high
price for the entire community as well. When future generations struggle with the significant trauma of parental
incarceration, so too does the surrounding community struggle to account for widespread familial instability, financial
strain and young people’s sense of detachment, distrust, hopelessness and apathy.

kEY RECOmmEndATIOnS
Given the significant costs to children and their communities presented by parental incarceration, we
recommend that policymakers and the public seriously consider measures to reduce the number of parents
sentenced to prison in the first place. We also recommend a number of ameliorative measures to address the
immediate pain of parental incarceration to the innocent children who are currently growing up with a parent
behind bars.

iii

1. Reduce reliance on incarceration.
Following the examples of states, such as New York, which have embraced drug law reform in order to
reduce incarceration rates and address budget crises, we recommend the following state-level measures
to reduce the number of incarcerated parents:
© Allow judicial discretion to place those convicted of drug offenses into treatment and offer
second chances where appropriate.
© Divert people who commit crimes other than drug offenses that stem from substance abuse.
© Divert people who commit drug offenses but are not drug users or chemically dependent to
rehabilitative services.
© Make people convicted of a second felony offense eligible for diversion.
© Allow individuals the option to try community-based treatment without the threat of a longer
sentence for failure.
© Allow plea deferral options, especially for non-citizen green card holders who will become
deportable if they take a plea to any drug conviction, even if it is later withdrawn.
© Allow opportunities for re-sentencing for drug prisoners who received indeterminate sentences
under previous longer sentencing ranges and who are still serving those sentences in state prison.
© Seal criminal records to protect people who finish their sentences from employment
discrimination based on the past offense.
© Allow the option to dismiss a case in the interests of justice when the accused has successfully
completed a treatment program.

2. Address the immediate pain of parental incarceration.
© Nurture children’s sense of stability and safety by:
• Providing educational workshops to student bodies about the impact of incarceration on
children, families and communities within the school system.
• Training child care workers, elementary and high school teachers and counselors to recognize
and address the far reaching implications of parental incarceration on their pupils when it
manifests within the school setting.
• Keeping siblings together, whenever possible, or maintaining regular contacts when parents are
imprisoned.
• Convening national and state consultations to examine the ways in which a child’s sense of
stability and safety can be maintained when a parent is incarcerated.
© Improve children’s economic security by:
• Providing comparable financial support to relative caregivers as that offered to non-relative
caregivers.
• Providing additional support to elder caregivers or single parent caregivers, including respite
care and specialized support groups.

iv

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

• Ensuring that the ability of children and youth to maintain regular contact with their
incarcerated parent – whether it be by phone or in person – is not undermined by exorbitant
financial costs.
• Providing subsidies for specialized individual and family counseling.
© Support children’s sense of connectedness and worthiness by:
• Facilitating children’s and youth’s ability to maintain regular contact with their incarcerated
parent, including visits, telephone or internet video contact.
• Launching public education campaigns in schools, churches and community centers across the
country to combat stigmatization and the impact of parental incarceration on children and youth.
• Providing specialized support groups and therapists to aid children and youth, caregivers and
parents to tackle the emotional and psychological trauma arising from parental incarceration.
© Facilitate children’s attachment and ability to trust by:
• Developing consistent and stable alternative homes – with preference for relative caregivers –
and avoiding multiple shifts in children’s caregivers.
• Facilitating regular physical contact visits, especially with infants and toddlers, to ensure the
healthy development of trust and attachment.
• Establishing child-friendly visitation policies and procedures to encourage regular visitations.
• Offering workshops and handouts to relative and non-relative caregivers, and adults who work
with youth, on how to give honest, age-appropriate information to a child about where their
parent is, why they are there, and what to expect when they return home.
© Foster children’s sense of having a place in the world by:
• Providing supportive counseling for children of incarcerated people to help them cope with the
psychological and emotional impact of experiencing the separation from the parent, adapting
to new living conditions and adjusting to the parent’s return home.
• Prioritizing the placement of children with family or close friends, and providing sufficient
economic resources to increase the odds that a placement will offer stable and adequate care.
• Convening a national consultation of caregivers to identify the social and economic assistance
needed to facilitate their caregiving responsibilities to the children of incarcerated parents.

The choices made by law and policymakers over the next decade – to heed these recommendations – will
profoundly affect the lives of nearly two million children today, their lives as adults, and the communities in
which they now live and will live in the future. A steady stream of harsh, overly-punitive drug laws has
directly resulted in more children left behind while one or both parents serve long sentences in prison. While
immediate solutions to mitigate the negative effects to children of mass incarceration are sorely needed, we
must ask ourselves the ultimate question: Is the price too high? Our findings unequivocally point to the need
to revisit the fundamental place that prisons occupy in our society.

v

inTroducTion

“

”

When they do the time we also do the time.

—Araya, teen girl with incarcerated father

I

t is by now well-established that incarceration
causes long lasting and significant psychological
pain to those in prison.1 But what about the children
left behind while one or both of their parents serve
long terms of imprisonment?
Until recently, researchers have given little attention
to the impact the incarceration of parents has on
children. But, as the incarceration rate has surged
upward over the last several decades, so too has
concern about the impact of parental incarceration
on children.

The scale of the problem
The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) has
estimated that by 2007 more than half (53 percent) of
the 1.5 million people in U.S. prisons were parents of
one or more minor children – translating into more
than 1.7 million minor children with an incarcerated
parent. This represents an increase of 80 percent since
1991. Nearly one quarter of these children are age
four or younger, and more than a third will become
adults while their parent remains behind bars.
Moreover, data compiled at BJS shows that the acute
problem of racial disparity behind bars is reflected
among the children of incarcerated parents. Black
children are seven and a half times more likely than

white children to have a parent in prison. The rate
for Latino children is two and a half times the rate for
whites.2 The estimated the risk of parental
imprisonment by age 14 for white children born in
1990 is one in 25; for black children born in the same
year, it is one in four.3
Undergirding this striking racial disparity is the sheer
number of people behind bars in the U.S. The U.S. is
now the world’s largest jailer.4 A recent study
commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trust
determined that in 2008, when both prisons and jails
were included, the number of parents behind bars
skyrocketed. According to the Pew report, “more than
1.2 million inmates – over half of the 2.3 million
people behind bars – are parents of children under age
18…[and] there are now 2.7 million minor children
(under age 18) with a parent behind bars.”5
Overall, the nation’s prison population has increased
by 700% since 1970.6 Nearly one in 100 adults were
incarcerated by 2008,7 and a staggering one in 31
adults were under some form of correctional control,
when counting prison, jail, probation and parole, by
2009.8 In particular, the number of incarcerated
women, who are most likely to have been the primary
caretakers of children prior to their incarceration, has
skyrocketed by more than 400% since 1986.9

1

Haney, Craig. Reforming Punishment: Psychological Limits to the Pains of Imprisonment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 2006.
Glaze, Lauren E. and Laura M. Maruschak. Parents in Prison and their Minor Children. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. August 2008.
3
Wildeman, Christopher. “Parental Imprisonment, the Prison Boom, and the Concentration of Childhood Disadvantage.” Demography, Vol. 46. 2009.
4
The Pew Center on the States. One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008, Washington D.C. February 2008.
5
The Pew Charitable Trusts. Collateral Costs: Incarcerations Effect on Economic Mobility. Washington, DC. 2010.
6
Pew Charitable Trusts, Public Safety Performance Project. Public Safety, Public Spending: Forecasting America’s Prison Population 2001-2001.
7
The Pew Center on the States. 2008.
8
The Pew Center on the States. One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections. Washington D.C. March 2009.
9
Boyd, Susan. “From Witches to Crack Moms: Women, Drug Law and Policy.” 2004.
2

1

The advent of the modern “war on drugs” and its
accompanying “lock ‘em up and throw away the key”
crime policies largely explain the evolution of mass
incarceration in the U.S. and account for much of the
pain caused to children who have lost their parents to
long prison sentences. For example, between 1986
and 1999 state prisons saw an 888% increase in the
number of women incarcerated for drug offenses alone;
this is compared to a 129% increase in the number of
women in state prison for all non-drug offenses.10 Drug
offenses accounted for half of the rise in number of
women incarcerated in state prisons between 1986
and 1996 and one-third of the increase for men.11
Today, approximately one-quarter of all people in
prisons and jails nationwide were convicted of a drug
offense.12
This stark reality has sparked new research on the
familial and societal costs of incarceration, increasing
the attention given by policymakers to the children of
incarcerated parents and stirring organizing efforts for
change at the local and national levels. Advocates
and activists across the country have even been
urging implementation of the Children of Incarcerated
Parents – Bill of Rights.13 State and federal
policymakers are also beginning to acknowledge that
current laws and practices that sentence people to
lengthy prison terms for low-level, relatively minor
offenses, including drug offenses, not only bloat the
incarceration rate and budget lines; they also create
an intergenerational malaise. Because of this, they are
exploring ways to avoid lengthy incarceration for
those with drug addiction and the mental illnesses

that often occur alongside drug addiction. There is
also growing support for immediate efforts to increase
contact between incarcerated parents and their
children, and to support family reunification after
parents are released from prison.
Notwithstanding these developments, insufficient
attention has been focused on the most direct reform
avenues for reducing or eliminating the social and
emotional impact of parental incarceration on the
child-victims of the drug war: reducing the number of
parents who are sentenced to prison in the first place.

Historical context
Over the last quarter of the 20th century our nation
was caught in the grip of an intense fear about urban
crime and disorder. Lurid media depictions
exacerbated public anxiety about a rising tide of street
crime, which created an impression that most crime
was violent, fueled by drug trafficking and that most
people who were arrested and processed through our
criminal justice system were desperate predators
suffering from addiction.
During the1970s, a simple prescription for increased
imprisonment became the primary response to the
complex issues that underlie the problem of urban
crime. Many politicians exploited the public’s fears to
gain votes with “tough on crime” campaign promises.
U.S. incarceration rates had closely tracked those of
other industrial democracies since the beginning of

10

Mauer,Marc, Cathy Potler and Richard Wolf. Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs and Sentencing Policy. The Sentencing Project. November 1999.
Id.
12
Justice Policy Institute. Substance Abuse Treatment and Public Safety. January 2008.
13
San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents, Children of Incarcerated Parents – Bill of Rights (2005), available at http://www.sfcipp.org.” In 2005, SFCIPP launched
the Rights to Realities Initiative, with the long-term goal of ensuring that every child in San Francisco whose parent is arrested and/or incarcerated is guaranteed”
eight rights addressed under the bill.
11

2

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

the century, but once a “war on crime” and a “war on
drugs” were launched, our nation’s prison population
levels began to spiral toward the sky.
Since the early 1970s, the number of adults
incarcerated in state and federal prisons in the U.S.
has continuously risen, placing the current
incarceration rate at 509 per 100,000 residents.14 By
the last decade of the century the U.S. found itself
adrift in the uncharted territory of mass incarceration.
The breathtaking rate of expansion of the U.S. penal
system, fueled in large measure by a relentless war on
drugs that has been concentrated in the poorest
pockets of our urban landscape, has resulted in
massive overrepresentation of black and brown faces
in our prisons.
New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller laid a
foundation for the drug war in 1973 when he pressed
for and won the famously draconian Rockefeller Drug
Laws. The widely publicized “Crack Crisis” in the
mid-1980s produced another proliferation of
mandatory minimum sentencing laws, despite
warnings from skeptical social science researchers that
they would not work to quell the problem of drug
abuse. Florida, for example, enacted seven new
mandatory sentencing laws between 1988 and 1990.15
Arrests and prosecutions for drug offenses shot up
during this period. Nationally, from 1986 to 1991,
the number of adults sentenced to prison for drug
offenses more than tripled.16

children’s voices and
potential solutions
This report examines the tragic consequences of mass
incarceration and the war on drugs on the lives of
countless children across the nation – especially black

and Latino children – due to the incarceration of
their parents. Parental incarceration has ripped their
families apart, leaving them to fend for their own
survival. The most fundamental question raised by
the research presented here – a question that many
have asked since the beginning of the drug war – is
this: Have our policymakers, in the name of public
safety, taken punitive sentencing laws over the edge,
pushing generations of young people into freefall
without adequate parental support?
The research compiled in the report presents the
invaluable insights of the few social scientists who
have studied the issues surrounding parental
incarceration in great depth, painstakingly
documenting that the resulting harms are as severe –
if not more severe – than those caused by separation
for other reasons. To shed additional light on the
issues, we spent many hours interviewing a broad
array of people directly affected by the wrenching
experience of parental incarceration, as well as many
involved in efforts to relieve or moderate the
detrimental effects. Through the focus groups and
structured interviews we conducted with people
intimately affected by parental incarceration, we
provide an in-depth understanding of how a parent’s
imprisonment can undermine a child’s lifelong wellbeing. We also show how and why parental
incarceration has such profound effects on children,
their families and communities.
Throughout the report we offer recommendations
that speak to the particular needs of children and
their families and caregivers. In addition, we also
make recommendations regarding the social dynamics
and policies and practices that must be examined and
tackled within departments of corrections, the public
school system, and several other private and public
institutions in order to effectively attend to the needs

14

West, Heather C. and William J. Sabol. Prison Inmates at Midyear 2008 – Statistical Tables. Washington DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics. March 2009
Austin, James. The Consequences of Escalating the Use of Imprisonment: The Case Study of Florida, San Francisco: National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 1991.
16
Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drugs, Crime, and the Justice System: A National Report, Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.
15

3

of children and their families. However, the report
concludes with one single overarching
recommendation that can ensure children are not
unnecessarily deprived of growing up with their
parents: reform sentencing policies for drug offenses
so that fewer parents face prison time in the first
place.
The final recommendation section offers a
contrasting look at the incarceration policies of New
York and Alabama. It examines their two distinct
approaches and the effects these approaches have on
each state’s sentencing and incarceration patterns for
people convicted of drug crimes, including their
relative crime rates. Unsurprisingly, we have
discovered that these two states – with starkly
different approaches to sentencing people convicted
for drug crimes – have experienced very different
results in terms of public safety. New York’s success
in reforming drug laws in order to reduce the overall
number of people entering and returning to prison
for drug offenses teaches a powerful lesson for other
states across the country. New York demonstrates
that it is possible to make better choices with regard
to drug policies and sentencing practices in the U.S.
without compromising public safety. Ultimately,
these choices will prove critical to the future
prospects of millions of America’s children.
***
This report contributes to the field by illuminating
some of the specific dynamics of why and how a
parent’s incarceration affects the children they leave
behind. We are extremely grateful to the many
individuals who contributed their time to aid the
research process, and we have tried to faithfully
convey their experiences, insights and concerns as
we received them firsthand.
Their voices, presented here within the context of
decades of academic research, tell a poignant and
stirring story of the pain experienced by the children

4

of incarcerated parents. We hope those with the
power to change these laws and policies – which have
become the source of so much pain – will listen and
take action.

Research methodology
We conducted a thorough literature review of the
national and international studies that examine
the impact of parental incarceration on children.
We designed and conducted eight two-hour
focus groups in New York and Alabama. The first
two focus groups were conducted with parents
re-entering society after prison. Two more were
conducted behind prison walls with parents who
are struggling to maintain family ties with their
children. The fifth and sixth were conducted
with case workers and counselors who work in
re-entry programs. We conducted a seventh
focus group with teens with a currently
incarcerated parent, and an eighth group with
child welfare workers who carry a case load of
children in foster care with one or more parents
in prison.
In addition to our focus group sessions, we
conducted 18 in-depth structured interviews
with a broad range of individuals. These
interviews included: teens reunited with parents
who had re-entered society; educators who deal
with children experiencing parental separation;
re-entry program managers; and, caregivers for
the children of prisoners.
We have also collected and analyzed a wealth
of data that describe national drug enforcement
patterns, and data that allowed us to closely
examine the sentencing and imprisonment of
people convicted of drug crimes in New York
and Alabama.

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

ii. Voicing THe Pain and Human cosTs of
ParenTal incarceraTion

When my mother was sentenced, I felt that I was sentenced… She was
“ sentenced
to prison – to be away from her kids and her family. I was
sentenced, as a child, to be without my mother.
”

– Antoinette, now an adult, who was eight years old when her mother was incarcerated.17

The significant and lasting pain young children and
adolescents experience due to the loss of a parent is
well-documented, especially when that loss is due to a
parent’s death or divorce. School systems, adult
caregivers, family members and society-at-large tend
to acknowledge the legitimacy of children’s unique
grieving processes, even when those processes include
anti-social behaviors, such as acting out at school,
withdrawing from friends or even getting into trouble
with the law. The fields of child psychology,
education and medicine have strived to develop
effective interventions and support systems and to
imbue these children with a strong sense of resiliency
and the ability to cope.
Less care has been taken, however, to address and
acknowledge the trauma children experience as a
result of the loss of a parent to prison. Although the
pain of losing a parent to prison is tantamount in
many respects to losing a parent to death or divorce,
the children who remain “on the outside” appear to
suffer a special stigma. Unlike children of the
deceased or divorced who tend to benefit from
society’s familiarity with and acceptance of their loss,
children of the incarcerated too often grow up and
grieve under a cloud of low expectations and amidst a
swirling set of assumptions that they will fail, that
they will themselves resort to a life of crime or that
they too will succumb to a life of drug addiction.
There are relatively few rigorous research studies
examining the extent to which imprisonment of
parents influences their children’s behavior as they
17

develop into adulthood and through the life course.
However, a survey of existing literature and
interviews with directly affected families confirm that
the impact of parental incarceration on the children
left behind may be characterized in terms of tidal
waves of trauma rather than mere ripple effects.
Young people feel like they were robbed. We all have
a right to have a parent to take care of us. But that
was ripped away. Whether it was justified by
society’s needs doesn’t matter to them. They just
know they don’t have their mother anymore. ‘I
don’t have my dad anymore. There’s nobody who
belongs to me, so therefore, I don’t belong to
anybody.’ I think that has got to be the worst thing.
It’s like being a displaced person, disconnected from
anything that looks like the norm.
Peggy, service provider and
grandmother/caregiver to two teenage girls

Children are the explicit focus of this report and the
direct research on which it is based, but the larger
effect on society as a whole cannot be understated.
When children lose parents to incarceration, receive
limited or no proper support to weather the loss, and
when society simultaneously stigmatizes and
authorizes this loss through public and political
support of government policies, the fabric of our
society is significantly weakened and broad swaths of
our future generations are hampered by the trauma of
their parent’s imprisonment.

Nell Bernstein, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. N.Y.: The New Press 2005.

5

The voices of the children, parents, caregivers and
service providers interviewed for this report are clear:
the costs of mass incarceration are too high. These
costs not only include the easily calculated financial
burden of over-incarceration but the more hidden
costs to the present and future well-being of children,
their families’ stability, and the vibrancy of
communities in which they live.

A. relevant criminological frameworks
There are many applicable theoretical frameworks for
understanding the effects of parental incarceration on
children. Unlike approaches to understanding the
effects of parental loss due to other causes,
criminological frameworks seems to have been most
emphatically applied in the context of understanding
the effects of parental imprisonment on children –
focusing on whether the children of people in prison
will themselves turn to a life of crime. To be sure,
research shows a close connection between parental
incarceration and adverse outcomes for children,
including but not limited to criminal behavior – but
this connection is decidedly complex.
Scholars at Cambridge University’s Institute of
Criminology, Joseph Murray and David P. Farrington,
recently investigated the effects of parental
incarceration on children.18 Their research shows
that parental imprisonment is a risk factor with strong
effects and multiple adverse outcomes for children.
After examining findings from several longitudinal
studies, they concluded that parental imprisonment is
associated with children having three times the odds
of engaging in anti-social or delinquent behavior
(violence, drug abuse), and experiencing more
negative outcomes as children and adults (school
failure, and unemployment).19 They found that these
children are twice as likely to develop serious mental
health problems. Earlier studies also suggested that

parental imprisonment was associated with missing
the imprisoned parent, sadness, withdrawn behavior,
sleep problems, aggressive behavior, deteriorating
school performance, truancy, and sometimes
delinquency.20
While Murray and Farrington’s findings comport with
the experiences of some of the interview subjects for
this report, these findings alone fail to paint a
complete picture of youth outcomes or the
mechanisms by which parental incarceration affects
children. Murray and Farrington drew from
qualitative research to identify specific “mediating
factors” that might cause these adverse outcomes in
later years for the children of incarcerated parents.21
They point to a number of theories that might help to
explain how mediators work – how parental
imprisonment can increase the likelihood of antisocial or criminal behavior in children:
Trauma and social bonding theory. The trauma of
parent-child separation could disrupt a child’s ability
to form attachment relationships, producing feelings
of insecurity and sadness. If children are lied to or
misled about the source of separation, they may blame
themselves.
My daughter feels like I chose the streets over her and
she still looks at it that way. My baby is so mad, she’s
so angry, she doesn’t communicate with me.
Ronnie, incarcerated mother

Modeling and social learning theory. Children may tend
to imitate their parents’ anti-social behaviors by
engaging in delinquent acts, or by developing hostile
attitudes toward police and other authority figures.
If the parent was involved in criminal activity, kids
may be drawn to this also, as it’s your only sense of
connection.
Jessica, family service provider

18
Murray, Joseph and David Farrington. “The Effects of Parental Imprisonment on Children,” in Crime and Justice: A Review of Research, edited by Michael Tonry.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2008.
19
Although it is often said that the children of prisoners are five or six times more likely to be convicted of a crime or sentenced to prison than their peers, Murray and
Farrington report that they were not able to locate a convincing source for this claim.
20
Murray, Joseph and David Farrington. (2006) “Evidence-Based Programs for Children of Prisoners.” Criminolgy and Public Policy, Vol 5, No. 4. 2006.
21
Mediating factors refer to the mechanisms through which parental imprisonment might harm children.

6

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

Strain theory. Loss of economic and social capital,
lowered family income, and expenses for visitation,
phone calls, and money sent to the imprisoned parent
could produce poverty, a factor strongly associated
with criminal behavior.
Because I was in the
streets drugging, my kids
didn’t know where their
next meal was coming
from. They had to learn
to take care of themselves.
When I went to jail my
son started dealing dope
and now he’s in prison.
My daughter went to
shelters, and got public
assistance.

Labeling theory. Social stigma, bullying and teasing, as
well as biased treatment by others could lead to a higher
risk of being arrested or convicted for criminal behavior.

There is a lot of shame that comes with parental
incarceration. Kids don’t
want to talk about it, so
they keep the secret. As
adults they will not be
When examined closely, and with the
trusting. The type of
benefit of these deeper theoretical
relationships they get into
explanations, the connection between
will be problematic and
indiscriminate, because
parental incarceration and the potential
they’re so vulnerable.
for criminal behavior by the children left
Many kids will enter into
a criminal life because
behind reveals itself as more complex.
these issues have never
Society has a stake in understanding
been addressed.

Marie, formerly incarcerated
mother

these connections and their causes,

Social control theory.
Caregivers of children with
a parent behind bars often
experience high levels of
stress. Caregiving
arrangements may be
unstable, reducing the
quality of care and
supervision, which could
result in delinquency.

social and economic experiences of

Paula, child welfare
caseworker

including the emotional, psychological,

When examined closely,
and with the benefit of
these deeper theoretical
into adulthood and take responsibility
explanations, the
for careers, families and lifestyles of
connection between
parental incarceration and
their own. These children deserve the
the potential for criminal
understanding, support and positive
behavior by the children
left behind reveals itself as
expectations accorded children who
more complex. Society
experience the trauma of losing their
has a stake in
Families that come to us
understanding these
parents under different conditions.
were struggling before;
connections and their
many were on some sort of
causes, including the
public assistance. Some
emotional, psychological,
public assistance is often
social and economic experiences of children and
lost when a parent goes to prison, so it makes it even
youth who ultimately grow into adulthood and take
tighter for the caregiver who is around. A caregiver
responsibility
for careers, families and lifestyles of
who is struggling to keep the rent paid and lights on
their own. These children deserve the understanding,
and food on the table has very limited energy to give
support
and positive expectations accorded children
to the child who is grieving the loss of the parent.
who experience the trauma of losing their parents
Jessica, family service provider
under different conditions.

children and youth who ultimately grow

7

To aid in this understanding, and to reveal many of
the hidden costs of incarceration to children, we
utilized the findings of Murray and Farrington and
over a dozen U.S.-based researchers as our theoretical
backdrop for interviewing and documenting the reallife effects on those directly affected.

B. costs to the child’s sense of stability
and safety

The first thing that hits young people is the feeling of
abandonment. Feeling like you don’t have the right
to call anything your own. One day it’s here and the
next it’s gone. No matter how bad it might have
been – it could have been with a substance-abusing
mother who was high all the time – it was
nonetheless their primary place. They felt safe there
no matter what any of us thought.
Peggy, re-entry service provider and
grandmother/caregiver of two teenage girls

The imprisonment of a parent fundamentally
undermines a child’s sense of stability and security.
The sudden removal, often without explanation, of
the parent from their daily life affects a child’s ability
to focus on their normal daily activities, such as
school. Children and youth become preoccupied with
the disintegration of their families, worrying about
their parent’s whereabouts, their ability to reconnect
with siblings or other family members, and – for many
– where they will live this week or the next.

Children feel like the world revolves around them, so
when parents go away, children will assume it’s their
fault.

A parent’s arrest and subsequent incarceration
represents a drastic change in the lives of many young
people. As research shows, before their arrest many
parents were closely involved in their children’s dayto-day lives – especially mothers who were most often
the primary caregivers. The sudden disappearance of
a parent is likely to deeply affect a young person’s
sense of well-being. In some cases, children will take
responsibility for the parent’s sudden absence.

The long-term impact of the sudden disappearance of
a parent can also produce, in some cases, high levels
of aggression towards others. For example, Anita’s 14year-old daughter has become extremely defiant, and
has developed a violent “rap sheet” of her own.

“

[Children] experience a sense of
abandonment when parents go to
prison – one day the parent is there
and the next the parent is gone.
Depending on the age, they’ll take it
personally. They think they did
something wrong; one day they were
mad at their mother and wish she
was dead and now she’s far away.
-Jessica, family service provider

8

Makeba, 24 year old university student/advocate,
whose mother was formerly incarcerated

When you have a strong bond with your children
before you leave that’s harder on them than anything
else. It really hurts when you leave like that.
Demetrius, incarcerated father

If you don’t pay attention to her immediately when
she wants it, she’ll hit you. She’s 14 now and
already has four assault cases. She cracked open a
girl’s head, and brought a knife to school and
attacked a girl. The younger took a chunk out of a
boy’s cheek. I try to talk to her [the older one] but
her answer is ‘you weren’t there.’ My kids have
abandonment, anger issues. They don’t know how
to express their emotions, except by hitting others.
Anita, formerly incarcerated mother

”

Children may experience a dramatic change even if
they still have another parent at home caring for
them. The caregiver may have limited resources and
may have to struggle hard to address the emotional,
psychological and financial needs of the children.

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

It turned my children’s world upside down. I was
the rock of the family. I was the sole financial
provider. I was a stickler for good grades. So, when
I left they were without guidance because my exwife was not an authority figure. She was an old
fashion housewife.
Carl, incarcerated father

Susan Phillips’ research bears out many of these
sentiments. She found that children of parents in
prison are more than twice as likely as their peers to
experience family instability. The arrest of a parent
may trigger a move to another caregiver. Prolonged
incarceration can result in children having to live
with a series of different caregivers.22
Noting theories that a child whose parent is involved
in criminal activity may be predisposed to follow him
or her into a life of crime, and that removal of such a
parent might improve the situation, another
researcher, John Hagan, suggests that parental
imprisonment is more often likely to “intensify the
problems caused by a dysfunctional parent,”
compounding, rather than mitigating family
problems.
Even though a parent may not always have
maintained an intact household, they may have made
positive contributions to their children’s well-being.
“Many nonresident parents, even many never-married
and absent parents, maintain frequent contact with
their children, and much of the variation in the
nature of the parental contribution may have to do
with the form and quality of family relationships
rather than with the legal and residential nature of
the relationship.”23

Ethnographic work in this area indicates
that nonresident minority fathers often
make informal contributions to their
children, for example, by buying toys and
diapers or providing babysitting services, and
in other ways demonstrating that paternity is
significant to them, even when this role
emphasizes emotional support and guidance
more than economic responsibility.

When mothers are incarcerated, families are often
splintered. Family instability can result in further
separation from immediate family and friends.
Siblings may be sent to separate relatives – sometimes
relocated to separate states – or placed in foster care.
Even if they are not separated, a large majority of
their caregivers may not have the financial
wherewithal needed to meet the necessary expenses
for the children. Hagan points out that older
children may have to take responsibility for care of
younger siblings, or feel pressure to drop out of school
in order to find ways (legitimate or otherwise) to
supplement household income.
Because prisons rarely offer rehabilitative services
such as drug treatment to help imprisoned people
tackle substance abuse issues, many parents are likely
to cycle in and out of prison. The “comings and
goings” of parents inhibits their children’s
development of a sense of personal safety. Children
may become apprehensive about bonding with their
parents for fear of them being ripped away again.
Some may become withdrawn, while others may act
out as their world becomes increasingly unstable and

22

Phillips, Susan, Alaattin Erkanli, Gordon P. Keeler, E. Jan Costello and Adrian Angold. “Disentangling the Risks: Parent Criminal Justice Involvement and
Children’s Exposure to Family Risks.” Criminology and Public Policy Vol. 5, No. 4. 2006.
23
Hagan, John and Ronit Dinovitzer . “Collateral Consequences of Imprisonment for Children, Communities, and Prisoners,” in Crime and Justice: A Review of
Research, edited by Michael Tonry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999.

9

“

Sometimes when I think about him I do miss him. He says that when he gets out he’s
going to spend all this time with me. But he can’t make up for ten years like that. He’s
gonna come out, and you think I’ll listen to him? I’m afraid that when he comes out
and I let him back into my life, he might go back in. It really scares me.

”

-Treasure, teen daughter of incarcerated father.

uncertain. Not knowing what may happen from one
day to the next can wreak havoc on a young person’s
education.
I was out for four months before I went back to
prison. My daughter asked my mom, ‘Grandma,
what’s wrong with her?’ She just doesn’t trust me
or anyone else. She’s too hurt.
Ronnie, incarcerated mother

Treasure, a teen whose father has been in prison for
many years, explains the fear and anxiety she feels when
she thinks about her father’s eventual return:

Sometimes when I think about him I do
miss him. He says that when he gets out
he’s going to spend all this time with me.
But he can’t make up for ten years like that.
He’s gonna come out, and you think I’ll
listen to him? I’m afraid that when he
comes out and I let him back into my life, he
might go back in. It really scares me.
In some cases, young people will find safe and
welcoming foster homes where they rebuild a sense of
stability. However, they also seek to maintain a
relationship with their birth parent, and may worry
about what will happen to the stability they have
established with their foster family when their parents
return.

Cost #1: Compromised educational experience
Paula, a child welfare caseworker, explains that some of
the children she works with express a lot of negative
emotions – and do a lot of acting out at school:
24

Anger and animosity sets in. Then you get the
reluctance of not wanting to go visit mom. Then
there’s the sadness and a little bit of depression as
well that sets in with the kids. A lot of these
emotions get played out in school. They go on a visit
and then the next day the teacher will call because
the child is acting up in school – they’re not listening,
they’re all over the place, they’re hitting and
fighting. It will take a little while to get back into the
routine after visiting the parent in prison.
Paula, child welfare worker

Peggy, a service provider and grandmother caring for
two teenage girls whose mother is imprisoned,
emphasizes how the uncertainty in young people’s lives
interferes with their education:

Failure in school is probably central to
young people’s preoccupation about what’s
going to happen. ‘How is this going to shake
out? Where will I land? Will he come home
tomorrow? Or will she come home
tomorrow?’ So, just not knowing or having
any stable sense from one day to the next of
what’s going to happen wreaks havoc on
education. How do we expect them to go to
school and concentrate when their life has
been turned upside down?

Ashton Trice and Joanne Brewster studied the social
adjustment of children with incarcerated mothers
through a survey of their caregivers.24 They found
that a third of the children with mothers in prison
have, themselves, been arrested during the year prior

Trice, Ashton D., and Joanne Brewster. “The Effects of Maternal Incarceration on Adolescent Children.” Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 19:27–35. 2004.

10

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

Many young people who have had the chance to build a
solid relationship with their parent before their arrest
will continue to yearn for their return, even if their
living situation is reasonably stable:

to the survey date. A control group was created by
using the same survey with the parents of the
children’s “best friends.” Measured by failing grades,
children with parents in prison were significantly
more likely to have experienced school failure (45
percent) than their friends (20 percent), and were
more likely to have dropped out of school (36
percent, compared to seven percent).

One young boy has a lot of trouble managing his
mother’s absence. He got in trouble in school, got into
fights. He was fortunate to be able to process his
emotions with a therapist. He was living with a relative
and was well taken care of but still in the back of his
mind he wanted to know when his mother was coming
home. He wanted his mom to come home because he
still had a relationship with her.

Cost #2: Threat to stability and home
Paula recounts the experience of two young child
welfare clients whose desire for a stable life is
challenged regularly by the knowledge that some day
their parent will be released and seek custody:

Tammy, child welfare caseworker

Cost #3: Separation from siblings
Some children find comfort with their siblings, but
many times siblings are split up and placed with
different relatives – especially where there are several
brothers and sisters. In such cases, a parent’s
incarceration not only disrupts the parent-child
relationship, but it also interferes with sibling bonds.

They want to have a relationship with their parent
but don’t want to leave their foster family. The
stability of their foster parent is important for them.
They’ve never lived with their mom. They went into
foster care at birth.
Stability completely eludes many other young people,
who experience constant change – living in numerous
foster homes. This lack of stability is bound to affect
their behavior:

One child has been through
20 families. Generally, the girl
does so well in school and
with the family initially. But
the minute she senses she’s
might be moved, she acts up in
many ways. Another youth,
an 11-year-old boy, kept going
to other foster families and
when he was about to move
again, he said, ‘Can you make
up your mind about where
you want me to be?’
Victor, child welfare caseworker

My daughter and my son are just 15 months apart
– just started school. She tries to be his mother and
puts him to bed. When he gets up scared in the night
he doesn’t get in the bed with my mother, he gets in
bed with his sister.
Alicia, incarcerated mother

“

I see so many grandmothers raising children.
Many uncles and aunts also have to raise
kids. It’s really tough on kids to deal with
these new living arrangements. We have one
12 year old student who was split up from her
siblings after her mom went to prison. They
were split up among relatives. This brought
sibling rivalry to school because they all have
different experiences with different relatives
and the 12-year-old receives more care and
attention than the others.
Vice principal, elementary school

”

11

In a recent review of relevant policy research, Nancy
La Vigne and her colleagues at the Urban Institute
explain that when children do not have adequate
coping mechanisms to deal with parental loss, longterm emotional issues (e.g., depression), low academic
performance or behavioral problems at school,
delinquency, and drug abuse may result. The
ambiguity of separation due to incarceration may
render children unable to grieve their loss. Sympathy
and care from neighbors, friends, and even family may
be withheld. Because parental incarceration may
bring shame and stigma if disclosed, school and social
service staff may not be able to identify and help
children who are suffering the loss of their parent.
La Vigne goes on to describe the uncertainty and
instability that many children face when a parent is
incarcerated, especially those whose parents cycle
repeatedly in and out of prison.
Children may move to different neighborhoods or
cities and lose their connection with friends and
members of the community. Perhaps most
significantly, children may permanently lose their
parents. The 1997 Adoption and Safe Families
Act proscribes that the process for termination of
parental rights begin when a child has been in
foster care for 15 out of the most recent 22
months. Given that about nine percent of
mothers in state prison currently have a child in a
foster home or agency, and that the average
sentence for an incarcerated parent ranges from
80 to 103 months, many inmates risk losing
custody of their children prior to their release,
regardless of desire or willingness to parent.25
These costs to the fundamental sense of stability and
safety of children are simply too high, and they are
unnecessary when the parent is incarcerated for
offenses that could be better managed through drug
treatment or community supervision.

recommendations to nurture
a child’s sense of stability
and safety
• Educate youth in school about the
impact of incarceration in their
communities. Provide educational
workshops to student bodies about
the impact of incarceration on
children, families and communities
with the school system.
• Train child care workers, elementary
and high school teachers and
counselors to recognize and address
far reaching implications of parental
incarceration on their pupils when it
manifests within the school setting.
• Efforts should be made to keep
siblings together or maintain regular
contacts when parents are
imprisoned.
• Convene national and state
consultations to examine the ways in
which a child’s sense of stability and
safety can be maintained when a
parent is incarcerated.

25

La Vigne, Nancy, Elizabeth Davies and Diana Brazzell. Broken Bonds: Understanding and Addressing the Needs of Children with Incarcerated Parents. Washington, DC:
The Urban Institute. February 2008.

12

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

C. costs to the child’s economic security
Incarceration of a parent impacts the economic
circumstances of their children. Caregivers may
have to quit their jobs in order to provide care for
children. In her 2006 study, Susan Phillips
compared the financial circumstances of children
whose parents had been imprisoned with that of
their peers. After controlling for parental substance
use, mental health, education and race, she found
that children of incarcerated parents were 80
percent more likely to live in households that face
economic strain.26

The economic strain that children
experience goes much further than
losing access to material things.
Many young people will find ways to
provide for those economic needs.
But removing whatever financial
security and stability that parents
provided for their children before
their imprisonment can lead to
anxiety – a sense that life has become
extremely precarious and that no one
can be counted on to protect them.

Cost #1: Loss of parental support
Before coming in contact with the criminal justice
system, most parents provide significant financial
support for their families, whether through legal or
illegitimate means. The economic support they
provide – even if precarious – represents a source of
stability for their children. As research has
documented, even many fathers who did not live with
their children nonetheless provided financial support
– supplemental family income that suddenly
disappeared when they went to prison.

26

“

My daughter was about to graduate
from high school. She was heading to
college but for my incarceration
because I was the primary source of
financial support. Now, she’s working
instead. My kids have always been
middle class. Now for the first time in
their lives they’re living in poverty.
They understand what a single parent
life is like for them.
Carl, incarcerated father

”

The second year I was in prison my kids and my
wife lost their home. When I was out I always
worked and had good jobs to support them. After
losing their home and having to move, I’m sure they
weren’t able to get what they were used to.
Howard, incarcerated father

***
Sometimes some kids don’t have the right tennis
shoes like other kids. A dad may have been
providing – legal or illegal – for a family of five but
when he goes in, the financial picture changes. And
now, there may be five people living off one social
security check and food allocations. But these don’t
buy school uniforms, or school supplies, or the right
shoes or clothes.
Vice Principal, elementary school

Cost #2: Increased poverty
Joyce Arditti’s research points to the overlap of
incarceration and poverty. Women in state prisons
report receiving inadequate wages or low public
benefits before coming to prison. They report fairly
high rates of homelessness (19 percent). Arditti says
that incarceration could be conceptualized as “both
an outcome of poverty and as a contributor to
financial adversity.”

Phillips 2006.

13

Our conceptual framework acknowledges the
primary loss associated with the incarceration of a
family member as well as secondary losses, which
have to do with the many things that the lost loved
one could have contributed to the family. For
example, secondary losses heighten the possibility of
financial difficulties or parenting strain for the
‘‘survivor’’ or nonincarcerated parent or caregiver.
Due to incarceration, the losses to the family
members who are left behind are significant, because
the majority of incarcerated parents have the
potential to contribute positively to the economic and
emotional support of their children.
Arditti interviewed family members visiting people
incarcerated in a local jail. Two-thirds of those she
interviewed said that they were worse off financially
since their family member went to jail.

Perhaps one of our most provocative
and unexpected findings was the
likelihood that a mother would leave
paid labor after her family member’s
incarceration. The other parent’s
unavailability to provide child care may
‘‘tip the scale’’ and contribute to
increasing work-family conflict for her,
creating a need for her to either leave
her job, or possibly lose her job because
of her single parenting status.27
Several had lost child support payments they had been
receiving. A majority of those interviewed were living
well below the poverty line, and more than half were
receiving public benefits, nearly three-quarters of
which began during the family member’s incarceration.
The proportion of families who lived on less than
$5,000 per year increased from five percent before
imprisonment to 29 percent after imprisonment.
These financial difficulties were compounded due to

the onset of expenses due to the incarceration –
attorney costs, receiving collect calls, and sending
money to the prisoner. More than three-quarters said
they sent money, at an average rate of $75 per month.

Cost #3: Caregiver strain and
accompanying child strain
To compound this economic strain, the caregivers
who are left behind with the children may also be
struggling to make ends meet – in some cases,
working a couple of jobs – limiting their physical,
mental and emotional availability for children who
desperately need the support of adults around them to
help them feel safe and grounded.
Families that come to us were struggling before; many
were on some sort of public assistance. Some public
assistance is often lost when a parent goes to prison, so
it makes it even tighter for the caregiver who is around.
A caregiver who is struggling to keep the rent paid and
lights on and food on the table has very limited energy
to give to the child who is grieving the loss of the parent.
Jessica, family service provider

Researchers John Hagan and Juleigh Coleman explain
how the meager resources of kin caregivers are typically
inadequate to support the necessary expenses needed for
the children in their care:
Substitute parents for children of incarcerated
parents typically assume unexpected burdens
without compensation, and in this sense these
parental surrogates and the children they care
for are at special risk of state neglect and
abandonment. When the substitute parents
are relatives of the children, they are
especially likely to be uncompensated or under
compensated for the childcare responsibilities
they assume. In general, relatives are eligible
for fewer benefits and receive less support
than nonrelative caregivers.28

27
Arditti, Joyce A., Jennifer Lambert-Shute, and Karen Joest. “Saturday Morning at the Jail: Implications of Incarceration for Families and Children.” Family
Relations, Vol. 52, No. 3. 2003.
28
Hagan, John and Juleigh Petty Coleman. “Returning Captives of the American War on Drugs: Issues of Comuunity and Family Reentry.” Crime and Delinquency,

14

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

Virginia Mackintosh led a team of researchers who also
looked at the relationships between the children of
incarcerated mothers and their caregivers.29 They
interviewed more than five-dozen children and 25 of
their caregivers. Mackintosh notes that kin caregivers –
grandmothers, aunts, and older sisters – are most often
willing to assume responsibility for the children of
incarcerated female relatives, but do so at great personal
cost.
Mackintosh explained that the way a child experiences
the separation from his or her parents will greatly
depend on how they are cared for during the period of
incarceration. Bonds of affection between children and
their caregivers can moderate the impact of parental
absence, offering at least some protection for a child
from the harsh effects of separation trauma. The
children she interviewed reported experiencing love
and acceptance from their caregivers – who, in turn,
said they loved and accepted the children. Yet
Mackintosh observes that a mother’s incarceration
places enormous strain on those they leave behind,
whose lives are often filled with hardship.
“Notwithstanding these encouraging results, the
findings suggest that many of these families are in
crisis.”

percent reported serious illness, injury, or hospitalization
of a family member. Fifty-one percent experienced a
death in the family. Thirty-six percent reported that
they had seen someone beaten or shot in the past year.
Thirty-four percent had to move and 36 percent had to
change schools. Many lived in dangerous areas, with 27
percent reporting they were unable to play outside, and
25 percent saying they’d had to hide from shootings in
their neighborhood. The children reported
experiencing many other risk factors as well: “poverty,
father absence, low parental education, a rigid and
punitive child-rearing style, minority group status,
parental substance abuse, maternal mental illness, and
large family size.”
Mackintosh found that caregivers were also beset with
struggle and stress. Thirty-six percent said that
financial strain was the most difficult problems they
faced. Another 32 percent said that managing the
children’s behavior was the most difficult. Other
problems plaguing caregivers included being
overburdened, having issues with other family members
over care and custody of the children, dealing with the
children’s concerns about why their mother was
incarcerated, and suffering inadequate living conditions.

Cost #4: Risk of getting involved with drugs
She notes that maintenance of parental ties through
prison contact is an important way to help children
preserve a sense of belonging, and an understanding of
who their parent is, but the stress experienced by
caregivers drains the energy and resources necessary to
assure a dependable schedule of regular visitation.
Caregivers who are older relatives of the prisoner may
experience particularly intense level of stress, as
personal and financial difficulties are coupled with their
own shame about imprisonment of a family member.
Most of the children involved in Mackintosh’s study led
lives filled with trauma and stress. Sixty percent said
they experienced multiple “life stressors” (four or more)
in the year preceding their interviews. Sixty-one

Parental addiction prior to the subsequent
incarceration may compel young people to
scramble to care for themselves, and to
struggle within themselves to find their own
source of stability – if they’re able to do so.
Once a parent is taken away, some young
people turn either to criminal activity or
government assistance for survival.
For instance, even Marie’s children – who were in their
twenties when she was arrested – experienced enormous
instability and disruption of their daily lives:

Vol. 47. 2001.
29
Mackintosh, Virginia H., Barbara J. Myers and Suzanne S. Kennon. “Children of Incarcerated Mothers and Their Caregivers: Factors Affecting the Quality of their

15

Because I was in the streets drugging, my kids didn’t
know where their next meal was coming from.
They had to learn to take care of themselves. When
I went to jail my son started dealing dope and now
he’s in prison. My daughter went to shelters, and
got public assistance.
Marie, formerly incarcerated mother

***
Most of our clients have used marijuana to
anaesthetize themselves. To help them get through
the day. If they start selling, it’s probably because
of their drug use, it’s also probably a way of
supporting themselves. They have nothing; nobody
gives them anything. If they want the sneakers and
clothes like everybody else has, they’re not going to
ask their aunt or grandmother or uncle, so they
figure out how to get these things without asking for
help. Unfortunately, in the world they live in, the
people available to help them figure it out are the
folks on the street. They aren’t surrounded by these
incredible mentors.
Peggy, reentry service provider and
grandmother/caregiver for two teenage girls

Some research shows that parental incarceration is in
fact strongly associated with drug use in later life.
Murray and Farrington found that children who
experienced paternal imprisonment were almost four
times more likely to be using drugs in adulthood.30
Using panel data from the National Longitudinal
Survey of Adolescent Health, a research team led by
Michael Roettger examined trajectories of marijuana
and other drug use from adolescence into young
adulthood.31 Using statistical tests to control for a
wide range of background characteristics (including
childhood abuse, family structure, mother‘s history of
alcoholism or heavy drinking, low self-control, peer
drug use, race, neighborhood poverty, and being
arrested as a juvenile) researchers found that having a

father who was incarcerated is significantly associated
with increased marijuana and hard drug use among
both males and females.
It should be noted, however, that adverse youth
outcomes, such as drug use later in life, may be
avoided if the child is placed in a relatively stable,
functional environment during their parent’s
incarceration. Some foster care families – especially
those that receive government assistance to care for
foster children – will offer children greater economic
stability than the children’s biological parents.

Kids often do better in foster care than with their
parents because the foster parents are more
economically stable.
Paula, child welfare caseworker

***
When I was in foster care, I had everything I wanted.
But when I left to go live with my mom, my foster
mom didn’t pack any of my clothes or other
belongings, so I hardly had anything when I went to
live with my mother. Initially, it was hard – I was four,
and I wanted my old things, but my mom couldn’t
replace all of that since she was starting over with very
little. I remember asking my mom about my favorite
truck, and my favorite shirt, but my mom wasn’t able
to give them to me. As a kid I felt like I was displaced
from what I thought was my home to this new place,
tortured by not getting what was familiar. I often
didn’t really feel at home.
Davian, high school student, advocate and son of a
formerly incarcerated mother

Relationship.” Journal of Child and Family Studies. Vol. 15, No. 5. October 2006.
30
Murray and Farrington 2008.
31
Roettger, Michael E., Ray Swisher, Danielle Kuhl, and Jorge Chavez. “Paternal incarceration and trajectories of marijuana and other drug use from adolescence into
young adulthood: evidence from longitudinal panels of males and females in the United States.” Addiction. Society for the Study of Addiction. 2010.

16

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

recommendations to address a
child’s economic security
• Provide comparable financial support to
relative caregivers as that offered to nonrelative caregivers.
• Provide additional support to elder
caregivers or single parent caregivers,
including respite care and specialized
support groups.
• Ensure that the ability of children and
youth to maintain regular contact with
their incarcerated parent – whether it be
by phone or in person – is not undermined
by exorbitant financial costs.
• Provide subsidies for specialized
individual and family counseling.

D. costs to the child’s sense of
connectedness and worthiness
Many people have had the opportunity to connect
deeply with their parents, whether with one or both
parents who lived in the same home, on a regular,
secure basis. The parental connection enables
individuals to bond, to clash, to disengage, and –
eventually – to find their own personhood and sense
of personal worth. Unfortunately, children whose
parents are incarcerated are unable to experience such
an unconditional connection with their parents to
shape who they will become in the adult world.
While most caregivers attempt to provide a
replacement to the parent-child relationship, too
often they are unable to meet the huge challenge this
represents.
Kids experience a sense of rage when parents go to
prison, and the folks who are left are more taxed,

and aren’t as available to care for the kids, to help
them understand who they are without their mothers
or fathers. Without anyone to help guide them as
they grow up, it takes a toll on the familial
relationships they develop later on.
Jessica, family service provider

During adolescence youth generally need
to push away a parent but if the parent is
incarcerated, the youth may be missing
out on the adults who will be looking out
for them. For instance, adolescents will
push the limits of curfew time. So, your
parent will come looking for you if you
go beyond reasonable limits. But if kids
have no parents, or are left with just one
parent who is totally overwhelmed, the
youth may feel that no one cares enough
to worry about them; that they aren’t
worth making sure he or she is home by
a certain hour. ‘I could vanish and
nobody would know or care.
- Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child
welfare caseworker

My sister cares for my kids. My nine year old does
exceptionally well with her. But my 16 year old is
rebellious. She just doesn’t listen to her. She doesn’t
trust anyone and feels abandoned. Even though she
her aunt, she’s not family. It’s not her mom or her
dad. So, I think teenagers view the separation a little
differently than the younger ones.
Tracey, incarcerated mother

Even when a parent is left behind to meet the child’s
needs, as a single parent he or she may struggle. Some
youth come to expect a certain parent to play a
particular role in their lives, which their other parent
cannot just step in and assume.
In junior high, I was a mess. I got kicked out of
school because I use to steal, skip school and get into
fights. It got to the point where my mom had to

17

home-school me. When I got to high school I
realized I couldn’t do that no more. I had to finish
high school. But I didn’t finish high school because
I just had a daughter. I chose to stay home. But I’ll
go back to finish high school or get a GED. I don’t
think I would have gotten pregnant if my dad was
around. I would have finished high school because
my father is really strict and I would have been real
scared of him. There are a lot of things I won’t have
been able to do because my dad was out. I can’t let
what he did affect my life. I got to keep it moving.
Saphina, teenager of an incarcerated father

***
My younger one lives with his mom, has siblings who
are doing well. One is a nurse and two joined the navy
like I had. But the younger one who was a baby when
I went to prison has a chip on his shoulder. He acts
out a lot. He went to an alternative school. I hurt
him a lot by not being there.
Julius, incarcerated father

***
My older son was with his mother when I went to
prison. He started rebelling around age 16 or 18.
The way it manifested was with him doing things
that he knew were illegal, such as smoking
marijuana. Even though he was in college and
knew it was clearly against the law, he was sending
a message that if dad can do it, he can do it too.
Even now that I’m out, my older son may be
misbehaving in order to get the attention he’s been
wanting for a long time.
Glenn, re-entry service provider and formerly
incarcerated father

The belief that the push-pull dynamic between parents and
children can be assumed by grandparents often overlooks
the generational gap that can cause a young person to feel
misunderstood by relatives who are a lot older.
In addition, grandparents may have limited energy or
health problems that make it hard to follow up on the
rules and restrictions they set, less able to go searching
for a youth in the street at three o’clock in the morning
.

18

She’s very secretive and doesn’t share a lot with me.
She doesn’t feel like I’m in her corner. She doesn’t
respond well to discipline.
Ms. Thrower, grandmother/caregiver

Cost #1: Susceptibility to peer pressure
and risky behavior
The low self-worth that may result in children who
feel neglected or misunderstood can cause them to
feel an overwhelming need to be accepted and loved
by others, at all costs. In turn, this may lead them to
overcompensate as they seek to be accepted by others,
to be more susceptible to peer pressure, or to engage
in high risk sexual behavior.
My older daughter will do about anything to be
accepted by her peers.
Anita, formerly incarcerated mother

***
My children became very promiscuous after I went
into prison. My son started having sex at age 12
with the neighbor. My daughter met a guy from the
naval academy and got pregnant at 14. She had an
abortion. Where were the adults letting them have
sex at those ages?
Connie, formerly incarcerated mother

“

My granddaughter has low selfesteem. She feels like she was so
horrible that her mom and dad
didn’t want her, so she feels like
no one likes her. You could do
pretty much anything to her and
she’ll put up with it as long as you
remain her friend.

”

Ms. Thrower, grandmother/caregiver

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

The combination of losing a parent and experiencing
the resulting low self-esteem and symptoms of trauma
may push young people to engage in risky behavior.
John Hagan and Ronit Dinovitzer’s review of early
studies of the impact of parental incarceration on the
family situation, point to evidence of psychological
trauma: separation anxiety, preoccupation with loss,
sadness as well as rebelliousness, school problems, and
truancy.32 They cite more recent research findings
that children whose mothers were imprisoned
identified symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder:
“depression, feelings of anger and guilt, flashbacks
about their mothers’ crimes or arrests, and the
experience of hearing their mothers’ voices.”
Emphasizing the need for role models and supervision
in a child’s socialization process Hagan cites Travis
Hirschi’s seminal work on social control theory to
argue that a parent who engages in criminal acts him
or herself may nonetheless steer children away from
that life, prodding them toward more pro-social goals
and activities. When a parental role model is absent,
however, the classic adolescent struggle of allegiance
between family and peers may default in favor of antisocial peers. Moreover, the stigma associated with
having a parent in prison may cause children to mask
feelings of shame and rejection with anger and
defiance – increasing the draw toward violent
behavior and delinquency.

Cost #2: Social stigma and shame
Unlike children who lose parents because of death or
divorce, who typically receive lots of emotional
support from others, children who experience the loss
of a parent because of prison may be deprived of
empathy and support. A greater number of rituals are
wrapped around children in the first instance, than
are provided to the children of imprisoned parents.

You have the whole world against your parents, and
antagonizing you by saying ‘you’re going to be just
like them.’ There’s no empathy for your situation.
The base feeling is the same – a feeling of
abandonment – but the comfort and support
provided to other children in situations of
abandonment isn’t available for you. When a
parent dies, people rally around you – bringing you
food, hugging the kids – but no one does that when
a parent is incarcerated.
Makeba, 24 year old university student/advocate whose
mother was formerly incarcerated

Tanya, a re-entry service provider, points out that
even the military recognizes that a growing number of
children are growing up without their parents because
they are stationed overseas. Yet few government
agencies have taken even minimal positive steps
where children of prisoners are concerned:
For instance, military officials have began a
program called ‘Flat Dad’ where a cardboard
depiction of the parent is provided to the family
facilitating the absent parent’s participation in the
children daily lives – such as ‘flat daddy’ at the
dinner table or in the family car. This simply points
out that there is the recognition of the impact on
children of parental separation. For children
experiencing divorce there are support groups. After
all these years with over 1.5 million children affected
by parental incarceration there has been very little
effort to address these children’s needs.
In many cases, family members may not have even
disclosed the reason for the loss of a parent to the
child, causing confusion, anxiety, fear and – if the
child discovers the truth – distrust of those closest to
them. Such children experience complete severing of
the parental relationship. Denied any opportunities
to visit their parent in prisons, they will likely suffer
great challenges during family reunification.

32

Hagan, John and Ronit Dinovitzer. “Collateral Consequences of Imprisonment for Children, Communities, and Prisoners,” in Crime and Justice: A Review of
Research, edited by Michael Tonry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1999.

19

Because of this, parental incarceration can severely
damage the social capital children need to thrive. The
stigma and secrecy that children and youth carry
around in their day-to-day lives has a significant
impact on their self-esteem and their ability to
connect with other people in their lives. Young
people are quite attuned to the prejudice people
direct toward their incarcerated parents, and, as
such, many feel deeply alienated.

A parent’s incarceration can have a
tremendously isolating effect on
children. Children whose parents are
behind bars must engage in their dayto-day lives without this primary
connection, leaving them feeling
different from their peers, and socially
disconnected.

Young people feel like they were robbed. We all have
a right to have a parent to take care of us. But that
was ripped away. Whether it was justified by
society’s needs doesn’t matter to them. They just
know they don’t have their mother anymore. ‘I
don’t have my dad anymore. There’s nobody who
belongs to me, so therefore, I don’t belong to
anybody.’ I think that has got to be the worst thing.
It’s like being a displaced person, disconnected from
anything that looks like the norm.
Peggy, service provider and
grandmother/caregiver for two teenage girls

***
I use to be the coach of my daughter’s softball team.
She’s played softball all her life and she’s always
loved it. It was something we did together until I
went in. When my daughter was in grade 10 she
decided to not play softball anymore. My wife said
she would get teased about her father by other
players on the team.
Howard, incarcerated father

20

Sometimes young people distance themselves from
people in their former lives because they are ashamed
of what their parent has done. This self-exclusion
can serve to isolate them from opportunities for a
brighter future.

“

My children’s social connections have
been cut off. My daughter is ashamed of
what I’ve done, so she’s disconnected
from her old community that could help
her get a job, get into university and help
open some doors.

”

Carl, incarcerated father

Children tend to internalize the shame and stigma
that is often based on familial and societal reactions
to people behind bars. A parent’s incarceration
becomes their ‘dirty’ little secret – the monkey on
their back, distorting their sense of social
connectedness and self-worth.
No one goes around advertising that their parent has
been arrested. So, they walk around feeling like it’s
a big secret, and nobody knows, and they’re
ashamed. They’re afraid of what people will think
when they hear about it. There is an incredibly
internalized stigma.
Peggy, service provider and
grandmother/caregiver totwo teenage girls

***
There is a lot of shame that comes with parental
incarceration. Kids don’t want to talk about it, so
they keep the secret. As adults they will not be
trusting. The type of relationships they get into will
be problematic and indiscriminate, because they’re
so vulnerable. Many kids will enter into a criminal
life because these issues have never been addressed.
Paula, child welfare caseworker

***
Girls seem more embarrassed by their parents’
incarceration. They keep it to themselves and may

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

mention it by accident. Let’s say a teacher says, ‘I’ll
call your mom about your behavior’ and the girl
may say, ‘Sure, go ahead, call her, she locked up.’
Boys tend not to have trouble saying their fathers
are in. For some of the boys, it may be a rite of
passage. ‘My dad messed up, but made it through
prison and made it through okay.’
Vice Principal, elementary school

Given that young people spend so much of their time
at school, one of the most significant impacts of
parental incarceration on children is how
schoolmates and school officials deal with the issue.
In addition, young people will turn to their
communities to find a connection to temporarily fill
the absence of their parent, and, therefore, other
community members’ reactions to parental
imprisonment will likely have a tremendous impact
on them.
My son started getting in trouble at school because
his father was in prison, so he started to isolate.

mamma.’ They can be really hard.
Vice Principal, elementary school

“

A young woman who had excelled in
high school and was a serious
overachiever met with other youths in
our program who had an incarcerated
parent. She kept referring to her peers
as ‘you’ with incarcerated parents,
completely distancing her herself even
if her mother was still in prison.

”

Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child
welfare caseworker

While many young people in our interviews felt their
parent’s incarceration was no one’s business, a few
indicated that disclosure did not cause them any
anguish around their parent’s incarceration, saying,
“People have been fine.”

Al, formerly incarcerated father

“

Daughter developed enormous trust
issues. People in the community used
to call her names and tell her mother
is just a crack head, so she called me
a crack head.

”

Marie, formerly incarcerated mother

My sons had to put up with a lot of harassment from
the neighbors. They experienced harassment not so
much from their peers but rather from adults –
especially those at church. People at our church kept
telling them that they didn’t want them there.
Surprisingly, two of my boys later joined the
seminary.
Charles, incarcerated father

Older kids can also be real ugly, saying, ‘You’re
going to be just like your daddy or just like your

I always thought people would judge me because of
my mom’s incarceration, so I was afraid to say
anything. But now I know it doesn’t have to be that
way, so I encourage other young people to not be
afraid of the stigma people have about the issue.
Davian, high school student/advocate
and son of a formerly incarcerated mother

As mass incarceration policies have sent more people
to prison, some progress has been made to reduce the
stigma of incarceration. Unfortunately, there
continues to be significant societal bias directed at
families that experience the trauma of parental
imprisonment. Adults tend to pass judgment on
families who have incarcerated parents – labeling and
alienating the children. As a result, some children lie
about their parent’s incarceration, either because they
know that people will judge them, or because family
members advise them to do so. The truth may well
come out, however, along with the potential of
damage to their young lives.

21

If other parents know their kids are playing with a
kid whose parent is incarcerated, they may not let
them go. Adults play a role in alienating them.

If the parent was involved in criminal activity, kids may
be drawn to this also, as it’s your only sense of
connection.

Vice Principal, elementary school

Jessica, family service provider

Over the years child welfare caseworkers have become
more supportive about facilitating parent-child visits in
prison, recognizing the importance of these visits in
maintaining the parent-child bond and its long-term,
even life-long, implications. Nonetheless, social workers
we interviewed pointed to continued resistance to
facilitating visitation. The rapid turnover in the field is a
contributing factor, and there is a constant need for
training new caseworkers about the issue of incarceration.

“

Caseworkers feel like, ‘why should we
take kids to see parents in prison. It’s
the parent’s fault.’ I tell them it’s not
about the parent it’s about what kids
need. There’s a lot of resistance.
Foster care parents are also resistant
about taking kids to visit.
Paula, child welfare caseworker

”

Cost #3: Risk of involvement with the
criminal justice system
While too often overemphasized, the influential role
model a parent may represent in a child’s life can
sometimes lead to young people’s involvement with the
criminal justice system. And even when young people
do not become involved in anti-social activities, they
may nonetheless be quite preoccupied with anxiety about
the possibility of following in their parent’s footsteps.
While some will steer clear of criminal activity or other
anti-social behavior, in many cases striving to excel in
life, other children of imprisoned parents may seek ways
of connecting with their parents that may be detrimental,
and – definitely – not what any parent wants for their
children.

22

***
We have families of incarcerated members. Within
a dorm there may be three generations. One day
there was a mother whose visit with her child was
cancelled. The woman said to me, ‘I know you,
when I was a kid you use to take me and my brother
to visit mom. She was in here and now I’m here.’ I
was shocked. You could see that she was ashamed
because her mom was here and now she was here.
Tammy, child welfare caseworker

“

Kids tend to keep all their emotions
inside but they worry. They wonder,
‘What happened to my parents… is it
going to happen to me as well?
Victor, child welfare caseworker

”

Susan Phillips examined longitudinal survey data
involving more than 1,400 children residing in 11
counties in rural North Carolina (the Great Smoky
Mountains Study) to learn how parental involvement
with the criminal justice system affects their children.
“The specific hypothesis that was tested was that
parent [criminal justice system] involvement mediates
the effect of parent risks on children’s exposure to
family risks.”
Noting that parental arrests have typically been held
by researchers as an indicator that children have been
exposed to anti-social behavior, Phillips explains that
the common assumption has been that any adverse
effects are “attributable to the actions of parents (or
genetic factors that might explain parents’ actions) as
opposed to the actions authorities take in intervening
with parents.”

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

This was not necessarily unreasonable. For the vast
part of the last century, most people involved in the
criminal justice system had either committed
particularly violent acts (e.g., murder, rape,
aggravated assault) or serious property offenses
(e.g., burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft).
However, the composition of the criminal justice
population has changed over the last two decades as
more and more people with drug addictions have
been incarcerated. Consequently, the parent
behaviors represented by parental arrest today may
not be the same as in years past.33
Attempting to disentangle the relationship between parental
incarceration and children’s exposure to family risk factors,
Phillips used statistical modeling to control for various factors
that might explain the increased risks these children face.
Her research documents a significant relationship between
imprisonment and family economic strain and instability in
the care and living arrangements of children, even after
controlling for parental substance abuse, parental mental
health problems, and low education.
Compared with children whose parents had no involvement
with the criminal justice system, those whose parents had
been incarcerated had 80 percent greater likelihood,
independent of the effect of parent risks and race, of living in
households that experienced economic strain. They also had
a 130 percent higher likelihood of experiencing family
instability.
After accounting for the effects of parental
substance abuse, mental health problems, lack of
education, and race, the incarceration of parents
(which here also includes house arrest) carried an
added risk for children experiencing economic
adversity that other outcomes of [criminal justice
system] involvement did not. Furthermore, both
incarceration and other outcomes of arrest were
additional significant predictors of family instability.
These are both factors that research links with the
increased likelihood of children developing serious
emotional and behavioral problems (e.g., including
substance abuse and delinquency), and, in turn, of

becoming involved with criminal authorities.
Consequently, research on youth outcomes that
treat the arrest of a parent as simply a proxy for
parental criminal conduct may lead to a distorted
understanding of the etiology of youth problems.
Beth Huebner and Regan Gustafson used data
collected from women and their children who were
surveyed as part of the National Longitudinal Survey
of Youth to study how incarceration influences
children and families.34 After controlling for personal
characteristics and other relevant risk factors, they
found that adult involvement in the criminal justice
system was more strongly related to having
experienced a mother’s incarceration during
childhood than to separation for other reasons.
Maternal imprisonment significantly predicted adult
convictions, with 26 percent of children with
imprisoned mothers convicted as adults, compared
with ten percent of the control group. Maternal
imprisonment also predicted whether a child would
spend time under probation supervision as an adult.

recommendations to support a
child’s sense of connectedness
and worthiness
• Facilitate children’s and youth’s ability to
maintain regular contact with their
incarcerated parent, including visits,
telephone or skype contact.
• Initiate public education campaigns about
the impact of incarceration on children
and youth in schools, churches and
community centers across the country to
combat stigmatization.
• Provide specialized support groups and
therapists equipped to aid children and
youth, caregivers, and incarcerated
parents to tackle the emotional and
psychological trauma arising from
parental incarceration.

33

Phillips 2006.
Huebner, Beth M. and Regan Gustafson. “The effect of maternal incarceration on adult offspring involvement in the criminal justice system.” Journal of Criminal
Justice, Vol. 35. 2007.

34

23

“

A lot of the young people I work with don’t build close relationships. If
your parents were taken away from you, why bother with others? What’s
to keep a friend being a friend, or stop a girlfriend from cheating on you?
Makeba, 24 year old university student, advocate whose mother is formerly incarcerated

E. costs to the child’s attachments and
ability to trust
Once the close parental presence is removed, many
young people have trouble trusting others and letting
them into their lives. Many are as reticent or guarded
in their efforts to protect themselves and not get hurt
again, as they were when their parent’s departed. The
parent-child bond is a fundamental building block to
a child’s ability to trust others. Parental incarceration
undermines this foundation.
My daughter doesn’t trust anyone because of what
I did. My mother raised her but she needed me. She
needed mama love instead of grandma love.
Ronnie, incarcerated mother

Cost #1: Diminished ability to establish stable
lives as adults
Being unable to count on their parents to “be there
for them” affects young people’s ability to trust and
bond, not only with their parents but also with others
in their lives. A parent’s lack of availability
undermines a child’s sense of stability and safety, and,
this in turn, affects their capacity to establish stable
lives as adult, as well as to develop safe and
trustworthy relationships.
My daughter has trouble bonding with people. As
an adult, she doesn’t seem to stay in one place or
with one person. When she was young, she had no
problems. My daughter is smart, she’s got a masters
degree, so her employment is good. But she has no
stability. I think because I kept going in and out of
prison my children now have trouble trusting others
and fear the lack of stability in relationships with
others.

As adults they’ll have difficulty trusting
people and building relationships because
there is a fear they will not last, or people
will not stick around. This can result in
sabotaging relationships. “I’ll leave you
before you leave me.” Also, people will not
trust when something is a healthy
relationship, because based on past
experience, when something may have been
feeling good, things may have gotten
disrupted.

In the workplace, the young adults may
also experience trust issues with
supervisors and colleagues. They may
also feel a need to prove themselves even
more, because of their history. They may
have difficulty trusting themselves that
they are doing a good job or performing
well. Others may overachieve. Having
grown up very fast, in the workplace
they will excel to camouflage their past.
Underneath one would not know that
the “am I good enough” complex is
driving the individual.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and
former child welfare case worker

The inability to trust others undermines their capacity, as
adults, to connect with others – always maintaining a
certain distance either by withdrawing, or putting on a
tough exterior. It also undermines a young person’s
ability to envision and plan for their future.

Al, formerly incarcerated father

24

”

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

With our guys here, the ability to trust, the ability to
believe in anything beyond the moment is almost
non-existent. They don’t trust anybody, so they will
not allow others to hurt them. Our young women
are very tough and more violent than the men. They
have seen their mothers abused and they are
determined it won’t happen to them. They refuse to
be a victim. I don’t see the men being violent,
aggressive towards the women in their lives. On the
other hand, young women tend to be more
aggressive, always on guard and ready to fight. The
loss of their mothers definitely has a significant
impact on them.
Peggy, reentry service provider and
grandmother/caregiver of two teenage girls

Cost #2: Strained relationships with caregivers
Children may demonstrate their mistrust towards
their caregivers, or their parents once they return
from prison, by becoming hyper-vigilant, monitoring
every move the adults in their lives make. A former
child welfare caseworker says that often children cling
to others close to them asking such questions as
“Where are you going? When will you return?” They
clearly fear another loss – imagining in their young
minds, “If you lose one parent, why not someone else
close to you?”

When I go home, my kids won’t trust me
to go to the bathroom by myself because
they’re afraid I won’t come back.
alicia, incarcerated mother

Research confirms and further explains a possible
basis for the experiences of those interviewed for this
report. Julie Poehlmann has closely studied the many
attachment issues and problems children face when a
parent is incarcerated. Poehlmann conducted
assessments of 54 children whose mothers were

35

incarcerated. Noting that very young children are
particularly vulnerable to developmental disruption
when mothers are incarcerated, she describes the
emotional cost of parental separation for children of
prisoners:
Consistent with attachment theory, the majority of
children initially reacted to separation with sadness,
crying, and calling for or looking for mothers. Other
common reactions included confusion, worry,
anger, acting out, fear, developmental regression,
sleep problems, and indifference. Although many of
these responses are similar to reactions exhibited by
older children following parental incarceration, such
as loneliness, fear, anger, and aggression, young
children’s sleep patterns and maintenance of
developmental milestones appeared highly
vulnerable to disruption following separation from
mothers. Clearly, prolonged separation from an
imprisoned mother who once cared for the child is a
stressful experience.35
Noting that some children seem to react with
indifference, Poehlmann wonders whether this
represents a true lack of reaction, or a defensive mask
of false detachment.
A secure attachment relationship can help to nurture
resilience in high-risk children, and promote healthy
self concepts that will foster stronger interpersonal
skills and relationships in the future. However, Julie
Poehlmann found that two-thirds of the children in
her study “held representations of attachment
relationships characterized by intense ambivalence,
disorganization, violence, or detachment.” Such
representations may lead to behaviors “that elicit
rejecting or less optimal responses from others.”
Additionally, Julie Poehlmann found that less than a
third (28 percent) of the children she assessed
experienced the benefits of stable and consistent care
giving while their parent was incarcerated:

Poehlmann, Julie A. “Representations of Attachment Relationships in Children of Incarcerated Mothers.” Child Development 76(3). 2005.

25

Although confirming previous observations that
many children experience multiple placements
following maternal incarceration, the present study
found that stability of the care giving situation was
the strongest predictor of children’s representations
of relationships with caregivers. Children who lived
with one continuous caregiver since the mother’s
incarceration were much more likely to have a
secure relationship with the caregiver than were
children who changed placements one or more
times. From an attachment perspective, developing
relationships with consistently available alternative
adults can ease the negative effects of parental loss
and facilitate interpersonal resilience, whereas
experiencing multiple shifts in caregivers undermines
this process.

While visits are a crucial way for young children –
and, for that matter, for teens as well – to bond with
their parents, it can also be an emotionally taxing
event, partially explaining why many caregivers and
social workers are reticent to facilitate visits.
When my girls first visited me they were real upset
because I couldn’t come with them. They’d say,
‘What do you mean my mom can’t come home!’
and kick the guard they were so upset.
Anita, formerly incarcerated mother

Anita explained that she asked the caregiver to not
bring her children to visit her again because “they
couldn’t handle the separation, and then when they
went to where they went, they acted out,” demanding
to see their mother.

Cost #3: Loss of contact with parent
For infants and toddlers, attachment to their parent
plays an enormous role in their psychological
development. Visitation during this period in their
lives is essential in establishing a trusting relationship.
Very young children are unable to develop
relationships through telephone conversations or
letter correspondence. Actual physical contact is
extremely important.
In the most extreme cases, without visitation the
parent is essentially a stranger to the infant.
Tanya, re-entry service provider
and former child welfare case worker

The first time my mother brought my
boys for a visit I was in county jail.
There was a glass dividing us. I’ll
never forget how the young one kept
putting his hands on the glass and
saying, “I want to touch you, daddy.”
Later visits, he’d always want to ride
on my shoulders because that’s what
we did when I was free.
Charles, incarcerated father in Alabama

26

“

Kids will get a sense the visit is almost
over and they’ll start to react. Some
will pick a fight with their parent.
Others will cling on to their parent.
Once they get on the bus they’ll
breakdown.

”

Tammy, child welfare case worker

The frequency of the visits may be able to help. We
see young girls and boys who have regular visits
feeling like they have a mom or a dad, and therefore
are not needing to seek out a father or mother figure.
Unfortunately, many fathers – unlike mothers –
decided to stop the visits because of the emotional
and psychological turmoil it placed on the children.
It is quite possible that fathers feel their children are less
impacted by their absence, as many of the children
continued to be cared for by their mothers in their
absence, which is generally the case in most instances.
Imprisoned mothers are more likely to have a sense of
urgency around what’s going on with their kids – afraid
they will lose them to the foster care system. They
remain concerned about the impact of visiting conditions

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

on their children’s well-being, but are less likely to think
that ending visits is an option.
Some youth whose parents stop the visits are extremely
angry when they return home.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and former
child welfare caseworker

Indeed, Murray and Farrington identified prison
visitation as another possible mediating factor in the
adverse effects of parental incarceration on children.
While prison visitation is generally counted as a
positive factor, it can prove traumatic for children due
to the long distances often traveled to reach the
prison; onerous, demeaning or intimidating prison
security procedures; prohibition of physical contact
with one’s parent; and the repeated pain of having to
leave one’s parent behind as the visit is concluded.36
LaVigne and her colleagues at the Urban Institute point
out that prison parents may effectively lose contact with
their children without the formal revocation of custodial
rights. Since most parents are in prisons located more
than 100 miles from their home community, visits with
their children are expensive and logistically difficult.
Caregivers may be reluctant to endure the discomforts
and difficulties of making the trip. Some parents are too
ashamed to let their children know they are incarcerated.
Others may prefer not to put their children through the
stressful process of a prison visit. Moreover, the costs of
long-distance phone calls may also be beyond the means
available to caregivers, especially as collect-call rates for
calls placed from prisons can cost as much as five to ten
times that of a call from a residential phone.

Cost #4: Not knowing the truth about a
parent’s incarceration

“

When families refuse to address the
parent’s absence, the child feels very
alone in their own trauma.

”

Makeba, 24 year old university student/advocate
whose mother was formerly incarcerated

36

Another way a child’s ability to attach and to learn to
trust is damaged is through lies about the whereabouts
of their parents. School age children are very
credulous about what they are told about their
parents. Inconsistent statements, refusing to talk
about the whereabouts of their parents, and outright
lies risk harming young people’s ability to trust. This
can be especially harmful for their current
relationships, but may also take a toll on future
relationships, both social and intimate. Children are
most likely to feel betrayed by the lies or hidden
truths concocted by caregivers and close relatives,
who they look up to as role models. Issues of trust
and abandonment developed at this stage are likely to
be carried into adult life.

When adults who care for you and who
you love lie about your parents’
whereabouts, this just adds on to the
insecurity. The deceitfulness you
experience just breeds major trust issues
for years… decades… forever. This does
impact future relationship unless you’re
aware of this dynamic.
Makeba, 24 year old university student/advocate
whose mother was formerly incarcerated

Researcher Julie Poehlmann, for example, argues that
deception and distortion of the truth about a parent’s
incarceration can be problematic for children,
damaging their ability to trust. But she says that
contrary to expectation, some children who visit their
parents in prison may come to view them in a less
positive light than children who do not visit. She
explains that prison visits may “activate the child’s
attachment system without affording opportunities to
work through intense feelings about the relationship
because the separation continues.” She adds that
prison personnel too often lack sensitivity to the
needs of children, and that “visits in some prisons are
not all that child friendly.”

Murray and Farrington 2006.

27

The effects of lies the former foster parent – now
adoptive mom – told Anita’s children about their
mother’s whereabouts has, according to Anita, reaped
havoc upon her children’s personal development, and
their interaction with others. When Anita was first
incarcerated, the children wanted to know why they
had to stay where they were, and could not be with
their mother. The foster parent told them their mom
was out of the country while she was in prison. After
their mother was released from prison, the foster
caregiver continued to find excuses to not facilitate
visits – even when the children begged for them.
For children at the toddler stage, everything seems to
revolve around themselves. The sudden
disappearance of their mother is likely to make them
think that it was their own fault. The lies of their
caregiver amplified their mistrust of people who they
should have been able to trust. Today at 14, Anita’s
eldest child is extremely defiant and has developed a
violent “rap sheet” of her own.
In some cases, the lies caregivers use in an effort to
protect children result in confusion, and can foster
self-doubt in children about their ability to accurately
assess their social environment.
I was told my foster mother was my mother.
Around three or four I start to visit this woman and
her son who I was told was my cousin. I’d play with
him and spend time with the women. Then a
woman in a Lincoln Town Car would pick me up
and return me to my foster mother. When I’d get
home I’d be asked all these questions about how the
visit went and how did the woman treat me. I used
to think it was pretty strange, since the woman was
supposed to have been my foster mom’s friend.
Davian, high school student/advocate
and son of a formerly incarcerated mother

28

recommendations to facilitate a
child’s attachment and ability to
trust
• Facilitate the development of consistent
and stable alternative homes – with
preference given to relative caregivers –
and avoid multiple shifts in children’s
caregiving.
• Facilitate regular contact visits, especially
for infants and toddlers, to ensure a
healthier development of trust and
attachment.
• Establish child-friendly visitation policies
and procedures to encourage regular
visitations.
• Offer workshops and handouts to relative
and non-relative caregivers (including
adults who work with youth) about how to
give honest, age-appropriate information to
children about where their parents are, why
they are there, and what to expect when
they return.

F. costs to the child’s sense of having a
place in the world
It is typical for young people to experience parental
incarceration as a form of rejection; the parent’s
addiction and their reckless behavior took precedence
over their family. They also feel very powerless in
their loss, especially if they were young children when
the parent was imprisoned, because the parent and
society made extremely important decisions about
their future without them. Children of incarcerated
parents will have a lot of anger, but underneath, it is a
deep hurt they are experiencing. And it may be
important for children to reject the parent in order to
reclaim some level of power.

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

“

In our work with incarcerated parents we explain to them that there has been a
rupture in the relationship with their children; healing needs to happen. We tell them,
‘Do not expect them to let you back in right away just with letters and phone calls.
And yet, don’t give up, because it is power you can give them, which is to reject you.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child welfare case worker

In our work with incarcerated parents we explain to
them that there has been a rupture in the relationship
with their children; healing needs to happen. We tell
them, ‘Do not expect them to let you back in right
away just with letters and phone calls. And yet, don’t
give up, because it is power you can give them, which
is to reject you. They have felt powerless with you
having been taken away from them, or that you chose
drugs over them.’ There is a deep pain that reflects the
feeling that “I wasn’t good enough for you to not
choose drugs over me,” so they may need to close the
door, but it may be only temporary.
Children may also want parents to be reaching out,
and now they have a chance to reject their parents, as
they felt rejected by they parents. It is important to
unpack the life long view of the children’s relationship
with their parents, and offer them a chance to untangle
the emotions they experience.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and
former child welfare case worker

Cost #1: Apathy
Young people may feel as though their parents did not
care enough about them to stick around, so in turn,
they may insist that they do not care about their
parent. Many of the young people we interviewed
kept repeating, “I don’t care about him.” “I don’t care
about her.” Service providers and child welfare
caseworkers alike indicated that the statement
represents a defense mechanism – and not necessarily
a healthy one.
Obviously he’s not trying, so why should I try. It’s
like, ‘You got yourself arrested and went back.’ I
don’t know if he gives a crap, but he certainly isn’t
showing it. When he calls … we don’t have anything
to relate about or talk about something that happened
in the past because there is no past for us. I don’t know
who he is; I just know he is my dad.

”

Why should we have sympathy when
they cry? They put themselves into that
predicament, so why should we care for
them. They were being selfish when
they did what they did. They knew
they had kids and families. When they
do time we also do time. Just because
we’re not in there doesn’t mean we
don’t do time. Because you’re not with
us, we also do time.
Araya, teen girl with an incarcerated father

My daughter feels like I chose the streets over her and
she still looks at it that way. My baby is so mad, she’s
so angry, she doesn’t communicate with me.
Ronnie, incarcerated mother

***
Our young fathers tend to dismiss the importance of
their fathers – totally dismissing the impact of their
absence. They’ll probably be in denial until they
process some of their emotions – if they do. There
is a natural curiosity to know where you come from
and where you belong which comes from knowing
your parents. But these kids either reject or deny this
importance. The young men will be in touch with
other family members but they don’t ask about their
fathers. There’s the possibility that someone will
say he doesn’t care about you. And really no one
wants to hear that. ‘I don’t care’ is a way of
building up a wall and taking care of yourself.
Peggy, re-entry service provider and
grandmother/caregiver for two teenage girls

***
My 16-year-old thinks I chose this life over her and
doesn’t understand that I was emotionally and
spiritually damaged.
Tracy, incarcerated mother

Zara, teenager with an incarcerated father
29

My son had to deal with a lot of
abandonment issues, watching fathers
playing catch with their sons, or
learning to ride bikes. My son said to
me, ‘You just left. You knew what the
consequences were when you were out
there selling drugs, so you left.’ He
didn’t mention me being sent to prison,
because in his mind, I chose to leave.

He felt it was best to tell his mom that she didn’t need
to worry about taking care of him and buying him
things. It’s part of the reason why she was in jail.
Paula, child welfare caseworker

“

”

Al, formerly incarcerated father

Al, formerly incarcerated father

I really don’t care about him. He’s been in jail most
of my life.
Shanita, teen with an incarcerated father

Cost #2: Becoming adults before their time
Young people not only feel obliged to take care of
themselves because their parent is not available to
watch over them; some feel compelled to become
adults before their time. They often feel a need to
take care of their own parents, as they struggle with
their own daily lives. As young people try to help
their parents address the issues that caused them to
land in prison, they forfeit their own needs for
nurturing.
My mom kept going through the same cycle, and I
realized she just couldn’t handle the stress of her
daily life. I was always worried about her. I was
the parent – even now that she’s 44 and I’m 24.
This takes a huge toll. I can’t remember a time
when I’ve been a kid. I’m 24 years old, but I
always tell my friends I feel like I’m 40. I feel like
a middle-age woman because all my life, I’ve been
helping my mother make decisions.
Makeba, 24 year old university student/advocate
whose mother is formerly incarcerated

When I came home my son and my role
had changed. He became the father. I
believe he was trying to keep me out of
prison.

Some young people will try to shield their parents from
what is happening in their lives, so as to limit the harm
it could cause their parent.
When you are one on one with your kids, they go
out of their way to make sure they don’t tell you
anything that will hurt you. They want to protect
you.
Charles, incarcerated father

Some children may regress to bedwetting, while
others may be expected to take on significant
responsibilities, often beyond their capacity, in the
family. They may be asked – or take it upon
themselves – to step into the parent’s shoes, taking on
major tasks for their siblings to help their caregivers.

“

My daughter is four and my son is
three. She tries to be a mother to him by
putting him to bed at night. But at the
same time she still needs her mama.
My mother tells me that my daughter
wakes up from nightmares screaming
for me, “Mommy, please hold me.
Alicia, incarcerated mother

***

30

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

”

Grandma may ask the eight year old to wake up the
three and four year olds and make breakfast for
them. It isn’t abusive, but it is a heavy burden on
the kid.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child
welfare caseworker

***
My son had to help his mother with many things dad
would do, so he was resentful.
Anthony, formerly incarcerated father

struggles a grandparent goes through, may become
very frustrated and angry with their imprisoned parent
for placing their grandparent in such a predicament.

My grandma had to go put money in his commissary
account. So she went to the Tombs [a NYC jail].
It was cold and snowing, she fell and hurt her leg
and it’s still swollen. I felt really bad because she’s
old. You’ve got her coming out there to put money
in your account. Why would you do that to her?
Precious, teen with an incarcerated father

***
Indeed, almost half of
the caregivers
interviewed by Joyce
Arditti said that the
quality of their
relationships with their
children had been
affected by their family
Precious, teen with an
member’s incarceration,
Shanita, teen with an incarcerated father
incarcerated father
with almost one third
saying that they had
***
spent more time with the
children before the parent’s incarceration. Almost
My older boy became the go-to guy. He was more of
half
said that they were experiencing declining
a father figure to my other two boys than their
health, and more than a quarter said their children’s
stepfather was. They all look up to their older brother.
health was declining.
Charles, incarcerated father

I really don’t care about him and how
he’s doing in there. I feel really bad for
my grandparents because they’re really
stressed out about him, and I love them
beyond words. I feel he’s taking up a
lot of time they don’t have, because
they’re old.

When my dad went
back to prison and my
mom had my little
brother, I must have
been in grade four or
five. I tried to help her,
the best that I could.

***
My daughter is 25-years-old and has temporary
guardianship of her siblings. My parents have her
back but it’s still a lot at 25. She’s quite strict with
my kids but I told my older son he also needs to look
out for his big sister.
Debra, incarcerated mother

Cost #3: Anxiety about aging grandparents
Many children worry about their grandparents – in
particular their grandmothers – who worry about their
own children in prison. Young people, seeing the

More than 80 percent reported that incarceration was
creating problems for the family, citing emotional
stress, parenting strain, work-family conflict, and
concerns about children.
The experience of emotional stress and parenting
strain were characterized by social isolation.
Comments such as ‘‘I’m struggling all by myself to
handle this,’’ ‘‘I feel like I’m in jail myself,’’
‘‘Everything is harder,’’ and ‘‘It’s rough’’ were
common among participants. The perceived lack of
support for participants was an area of concern and
reflected in statements such as ‘‘I’m doing
everything by myself.’’ One mother summed up her
parenting experience since her husband’s

31

incarceration in this way: ‘‘No peace, no break, no
patience, and no help.’’
For those parents who remained in the paid labor
force, work demands intensified time pressures with
several mothers indicating that ‘‘I hardly have time
for myself.’’ The lack of time was intertwined with
the fatigue associated with parenting (‘‘I’m just
tired, I don’t have time to get sick’’).37
Arditti describes these family situations as fragile and
precarious, demoralized, socially isolated, and lacking
in positive developmental pathways for their children.
Interviewees said they worried that their family would
fall apart. They were painfully aware of the grief their
children felt, and many noted that behavioral
problems had increased at school, as well as at home.
The children were contending with the primary loss
of a parent, and – at the same time – with the
impoverished, overwhelmed caregiver that remained
behind. “We believe that incarceration pushes many
families over, ripening conditions related to ‘rotten
outcomes’ for family life and child development.”

Cost #4: Having to start over
For many children, displacement from their family
unit is fraught with conflicted feelings, even when
they are placed with a close relative.
These youths are adrift, experiencing a sense of loss
and bewilderment. If they are lucky, some will land
somewhere, giving them some sense of stability.
Then they need to rebuild. It’s not fair. None of us
have had to rebuild. And then I think they are
overwhelmed with this sense of loyalty. Who are
they loyal to? The mom who is in prison or the
person who is raising them? They can’t be disloyal
to mom; she’s mom and no matter what she’s mom.
But you can’t be disloyal to the person who cares
for you because you can’t bite the hand that feeds
you. I’m sure there is this constant conflict. My

granddaughter would push her mom away and
connect with me. In large part, it’s because she
didn’t want to hurt her grandma’s feelings. She
clearly felt like she had to choose.
Peggy, service provider and
grandmother/caregiver for two teenage girls

Many children are relocated to new living
arrangements that are not familiar, where they will
need to adjust quickly in order to survive. Some are
the lucky ones, who land with a close relative who
can offer them a sense of continuity and stability.
Even so, the fact remains that – in their own eyes –
their new surroundings are not their own.
While grandparents are often the surest bet to care
for the children of incarcerated parents, if you ask
young people 10 or 20 years from now if that was
the case they may disagree. Just this morning, my
[18-year-old] granddaughter said, in her own words,
that she was an emotional mess. She said that she
hadn’t had a place to live since she was 11. So I
said, ‘But that’s not true, because you came to live
with me at the age of 13, so you’ve had a place to
live all that time.’ But you know what? It’s not her
place. It’s very clear that – at least in her mind – it’s
temporary. As permanent as anything in her life
has ever been, yet it’s still temporary.
Unfortunately for them they moved to a very
different community. They moved from an
upstate [New York] community to Bergen
County in New Jersey... It’s a really upscale
neighborhood, not what the kids were used to at
all. They had major adjustments in their lives.
Peggy, reentry service provider and
grandmother/caretaker to two teenage girls

Displacement to a new neighborhood can raise new
problems, especially if gang affiliation is a factor.

37
Arditti, Joyce A., Jennifer Lambert-Shute, and Karen Joest. “Saturday Morning at the Jail: Implications of Incarceration for Families and Children.” Family
Relations, Vol. 52, No. 3. 2003.

32

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

Gang affiliation presents an enormous problem.
Many kids need to join gangs when they start
school. Each particular neighborhood or even block
or housing development has it’s own gang. When a
kid’s parents go to prison and they need to relocate
to a different neighborhood or block, they are likely
to run into gang conflict and gang violence.
Jessica, family service provider

For some, family displacement will have a serious
impact on their opportunities in the future. One
incarcerated father explains that his children had very
bright futures ahead of them, but now they are
struggling.
They had to move from a really affluent
neighborhood and move into the hood. That’s
where I came from. I came up from the bottom to
the top. Since they’ve already tasted middle-class,
and they’ve seen their father made it up, it motivates
them to do the same, and get back up there. But
the move has been really hard on my son. He went
from a school where 97 percent of the students went
to college, to a school where there is violence, drugs
and gangs all around. He’s in an area of low
expectation that really contaminates the thinking.

For some, their mother becomes a fatherly presence,
in addition to being the mother.

I don’t feel like he’s my father. I don’t
feel like I have to tell him certain
things. I don’t feel like I need to listen
to him. I know he’s my father. But I
look up to others as father figures. I
have a lot of male friends and a lot of
uncles. I have my brother and he’s over
protective of me. What advice is he
going to give me? He’s in jail. My
mother is my father, so she’s the only
one I listen to.
Araya, teen daughter of formerly
incarcerated father

When a child has built a strong relationship with their
mother’s boyfriend, it may be difficult when a father
comes out of prison, wanting to step back into their
lives as their father. The boyfriend was there to take
care of them while the father was gone.

Carl, incarcerated father

Cost #5: Yearning for mother and father figures
Children with incarcerated fathers tend to seek out
replacement father figures from among their uncles,
grandfathers and, sometimes, brothers or mother’s
new boyfriend. Many make no apologies for finding a
replacement. It is clear that what matters is a
substitute who can provide a sense of parental
involvement in their lives.
I don’t feel any guilt. If you ain’t around, I’ll call
another man daddy. He’s there for me and I can talk
to him about things. Yeah, I’ll call him dad. He’s not
there why should I feel guilt. He should feel guilt.
Precious, teen daughter of an incarcerated father

My mom’s former boyfriend is the person I call
‘dad’. He was around since my birth. Having him
around probably helped me not feel so angry
towards my dad.
Precious, teen daughter of a formerly
incarcerated father

Some service providers and child welfare caseworkers
say that boys and girls experience the absence of a
parent very differently. Boys do not tend to seek a
mother figure, while girls, being more relationoriented than boys, will seek the parental
relationship. Boys tend to pretend everything is fine;
that they do not need anyone.
Some younger kids or going into pre-teens may be
overly attaching or attaching very rapidly. The
immediate attachment to anyone. The child just

33

meets you and before you leave he says, ‘I love you.’
Although it may seem sweet, it really worries you
because you can tell the poor kid is starved for that love.
As people grow older and they haven’t had the love in
their life, it does put them at risk, by quickly attaching
to people, and possibly to people who may not be safe.
And we definitely see girls at a greater risk of this
situation.
So we see young girls attaching themselves to dangerous
relationships, reflecting their need for relational attachment.
We also see a lot of teenage pregnancy. We see young girls
developing relationships with much older men. Part of that
could be looking for a father figure.
Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child
welfare caseworker

Nonetheless, some boys will definitely feel the
absence of their fathers as well, demanding answers as
to why they have to be separated from their fathers.
A twelve year old boy is living in a household of
women – mother, aunties, sisters, grandma – wrote
to his father saying, ‘How come you left me alone
with all the girls?’
Tanya, re-entry service provider and former child
welfare caseworker

Solangel Maldonado argues that all of the kinds of
negative effects of paternal disengagement that may
occur in the context of divorce are magnified when
children lose their fathers as a result of incarceration:
Contrary to popular opinion, many incarcerated
fathers lived with their children and actively
participated in their upbringing before they were
incarcerated. Approximately half had lived with at
least one of their children prior to incarceration, and
almost an equal number planned to live with them
after their release. Amongst those who did not live
with their children, two-thirds reported providing
some financial support and/or spending time with at

least one of their children prior to incarceration.
While many low-income nonresident fathers cannot
afford to make regular child support payments, many are
more involved with their children than those middle
class divorced fathers who pay support but rarely if ever
see their children. According to Maldonado:
These poor fathers support their children by taking
them to school or picking them up, helping them with
their homework, taking them to the doctor, and
watching them while their mothers work or run
errands. In other words, they do the things that are
usually associated with mothers. They also bring
items such as groceries, diapers, baby formula,
clothing, and toys for their children. However, none
of these acts count as child support even though they
are likely to facilitate paternal involvement. 38
Once incarcerated, however, fathers play little or no
role in their children’s daily lives. For the most part,
neither lawmakers nor prison administrators have
devised policies or programs that assist incarcerated
fathers to fulfill parental obligations – aside from
child support – during imprisonment.

recommendations to foster a child’s
sense of having a place in the world
• Provide supportive counseling for children of
incarcerated people to help them cope with the
psychological and emotional impact of experiencing
the separation from the parent, adapting to new living
conditions and adjusting to the parent’s return home.
• Prioritize the placement of children with family or
close friends, and provide sufficient economic
resources to increase the odds that a placement will
provide stable and adequate care.
• Convene a national consultation of caregivers to
identify their social and economic needs and to
promote assistance to facilitate their caregiving
responsibilities to the children of incarcerated parents.

38
Maldonado, Solangel. “Recidivism and Parental Engagement.” Family Law
Quarterly, Vol. 40. Summer 2006.

34

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

G. costs to the child’s community
Just as insidious as the individual pain experienced by
children with incarcerated parents, so are the
consequences to the communities in which these
children live.
John Hagan and Ronit Dinovitzer published an
extensive review of empirical research on the collateral
effects of parental incarceration on children. They
discuss various ways in which imprisonment might
harm families and communities, leading to adverse
outcomes for these children. They warned that the
impact of mass incarceration on children, their families
and their communities might be the most consequential
result of the choice of such harsh penal policies.
[I]mprisonment
may
engender
negative
consequences for offenders whose employment
prospects after release are diminished; for families
who suffer losses both emotional and financial; for
children who suffer emotional and behavioral
problems due to the loss of a parent, financial strain,
and possible displacement into the care of others; for
communities whose stability is threatened due to the
loss of working males; and for other social
institutions that are affected by the budgetary
constraints imposed by the increases in spending on
incarceration.39
They argue that both the financial and emotional loss
that ensues when a parent is incarcerated engender a
surfeit of problems for the child who is left behind,
including educational failures, aggression, depression,
and withdrawal. “Especially in disadvantaged
minority communities, the children of this prison
generation form a high-risk link to the future.”
Researcher Dorothy Roberts has assessed the injury
caused by mass incarceration of such a sizeable group
of people in Black communities in particular,

39
40

documenting the harm caused by over-enforcement of
the nation’s drug laws to Blacks as a group, rather
than as individuals:
It is important to uncover, analyze, and address the
group consequences of over-enforcement as well as
the way it supports a racial hierarchy in America.
When human rights organizations present prison
statistics from less democratic countries (South
Africa under Apartheid, for example), the public
does not condition its condemnation on proving the
innocence of the prisoners. Rather, it recognizes that
the government can use incarceration as a tool of
state repression. We understand that massive
incarceration inflicts a political injury beyond the
physical restraint imposed on so many individuals.
It is increasingly clear that the criminalization of
Black Americans serves a repressive function.40
She argues that racial disparity has had a devastating
impact on Black family life, devaluing and disrupting
these families, and contributing to the
disproportionate removal of black children from their
parents’ custody to state control. “Demographically,
the prison system and the child welfare system are
remarkably similar. They are both populated almost
exclusively by poor people and by a grossly
disproportionate number of Blacks.”
Chief among the harms of prison policy is its
disproportionate disruption of Black families. Both the
incarceration of parents and the detention of juveniles
break up families and place children under state
supervision. The criminal justice system thus works
with the child welfare system to take custody of an
inordinate number of Black children. This repressive
impact on Black family life is further reason to curtail
the trend toward greater criminalization of Black
children and adults.

Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999.
Roberts, Dorothy E. “Criminal Justice and Black Families: the Collateral Damage of Over-enforcement.” U.C. Davis Law Review, Vol. 34. Summer 2001.

35

Such community-wide effects, combined with the
multitude of individual effects documented in Part I
of this report, seriously undermine the very forms of
social capital that children need most to recover from
the trauma of their parent’s incarceration.
John Hagan, for example, draws from Loïc
Wacquant’s theories about how mass incarceration
has eroded social capital – the resources that facilitate
relationships and initiatives – in high-incarceration
communities, to argue that people sent to prison
during the height of the drug war are returning to
communities that are “not the ones they left behind.”
Wacquant wrote that this erosion features the
“organizations presumed to provide civic goods and
services – physical safety, legal protection, welfare,
education, housing and healthcare – which have turned
into instruments of surveillance, suspicion and
exclusion rather than vehicles of social integration and
trust building.”41 The ties between the state and these
communities have not been severed; rather, they have
changed in character, becoming more punitive than
supportive.

Children’s loss of a parent due to incarceration may
be met with disapproving attitudes rather than
sympathy if the reason for parental absence becomes
known. Normal social outlets for grieving may be
denied and the pain of stigmatization may last long
after the parent has returned to the family.

***
While recommendations addressing the particular
needs of children and their families were presented
throughout Part II of the report, given the farreaching, negative consequences of mass
incarceration policies on children and their
communities, the public and policymakers must seek
solutions without delay that will target the structural
problem of overreliance on incarceration. The pain
experienced by the more than one million children
who are growing up with a parent in prison is
unwarranted but, thankfully, avoidable. Part II
presents solutions worthy of serious consideration.

He warns that parental imprisonment depletes the
social capital a child needs for success in reaching
later life goals, as well as draining the human and
social capital of the family as a whole.42
Associated sociological and criminological theories
point to three prominent ways in which the effects of
parental imprisonment on the social capital of children
might be understood. These involve the strains of
economic deprivation, the loss of parental socialization
through role modeling, support, and supervision, and
the stigma and shame of societal labeling.

41
42

Hagan and Coleman 2001.
Hagan and Dinovitzer 1999.

36

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

iii. recommendaTions

Alleviating the pain of children with parents in prison – two distinct paths
The research presented in Part II provides the direct
experiences of the children left behind by parental
incarceration, as well as those of their families and
communities. In addition, the research also presents
proposals for mitigating the pain and costs of parental
incarceration. These findings raise fundamental
issues about the laws and policies that have swept
such large numbers of parents into our prison system
in the first place. If we are to truly address the
individual and societal costs of parental incarceration,
especially the costs to future generations, then we
must reduce our nation’s reliance on incarceration
and shift our understanding of the failed role of
prisons in treating the underlying causes of crime,
especially drug crimes. A wealth of recent research
into the costs and benefits of drug treatment support
this notion: imprisonment, for people whose crimes
are driven by substance use problems – and often cooccurring mental health issues – does not work as well
as alternatives, which often cost less money to
taxpayers and enhance public safety outcomes
through reducing repeat offenses.43
The report now offers policymakers a comparison
between two states with starkly different approaches
to sentencing people convicted for drug crimes.
Alabama’s punitive sentencing and incarceration
policies paint a grim picture of the future if these laws
and policies remain intact. New York’s reform of
previously punitive drug laws lights a viable path to
reducing the scourge of incarceration and
demonstrates that reducing reliance on prison can not
only enhance public safety, but also enable children
to thrive into strong, responsible and self-reliant
adults.

A. alaBama: ‘get tough’ policies in whose

best interest?
Alabama’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded and
disastrously underfunded. Facilities designed for
13,403 prisoners are crammed with more than
26,000.44 After reluctantly cutting the amount of
fresh fruit and milk served to people in his prisons,
Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said the
system cannot sustain more belt-tightening measures.
“We have cut just about all we can cut.”45 The
current crisis is a consequence of explosive prison
population growth, fueled in recent years by a failed
“war on drugs.” Given the current prison crisis that
the Alabama correctional system is facing, it is
unlikely that funding will be earmarked to address the
needs of children of incarcerated parents through
such measures as child-friendly visitation rooms.
For decades, Alabama has fought this war with some
of the toughest drug laws and policies in the country.
Drug felony caseloads have been driven by drug
possession rather than more serious drug offenses such
as distribution, trafficking or manufacturing of a
controlled substance. Between October 2005 and
September 2008, three in four Alabamians sentenced
for a felony drug offense were convicted of simple
possession of marijuana (13 percent) or other drugs
(64 percent). Drug offenses represent the largest
single category of prison admissions, responsible for
36 percent of prison admissions in fiscal year 2008. 46
Additionally, Alabama has one of the harshest
marijuana laws in the nation. The state’s marijuana

43

Drake, Elizabeth K., Steve Aos, and Marna G. Miller. “Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Crime and Criminal Justice Costs: Implications in
Washington State.” Victims and Offenders, Vol. 4, No. 1, November 2008.
44
Allen, Richard F. “Interdependance of Jails and Prisons in Alabama – or the Hundred Years’ War Revisited. Mongomery, AL: Alabama Department of Cottections.
Accessed online on September 6, 2009, at http://www.msccsp.org/nasc2009/Presentations.aspx.
45
Kitchen, Sebastien. “Prisons underfunded, understaffed.” Montgomery Advertizer, August 9, 2009.
46
Alabama Sentencing Commission. “2009 Report: Compliance with the Initial Sentencing Standards.” Montgomery, AL: 2009.

37

crime rates. And a
comparison of crime patterns
and incarceration rates in
Alabama with patterns in
the nation as a whole, as well
as in a key drug reform state
(New York), shows that
remarkable reductions in
crime rates are occurring
elsewhere without recourse
to such inhumane and costly
reliance on imprisonment.

Crime trends illustrate
the folly of Alabama’s
drug policy

SOURCE:
SOURCE: FBI
FBI Uniform
Unifform C
Crime
rime R
Reports
eports

statutes make no clear line of demarcation on the
amount of the drug that can be considered “for
personal use only.”47
Instead, first-time possession of marijuana for personal
use (possession in the second degree) is a Class A
misdemeanor. And a subsequent conviction for
possessing marijuana for personal use is considered
possession in the first degree – a Class C felony
punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Possession of
marijuana “for other than personal use” is also
considered possession in the first degree. More people
entered prison in fiscal year 2007 for first-degree
marijuana possession (448) than for first- and seconddegree assaults combined (368).48
Supporters of these tough sentencing policies claim
that they made a substantial contribution to a
decrease in Alabama’s crime rate in recent years.
Evidence-based research on deterrence and
incapacitation, however, does not provide much
support for the notion that harsher sentences reduce

Alabama is not alone in
experiencing a drop in crime
in recent years. Crime rates
have been dropping for the
nation as a whole. The following chart looks at FBI
uniform crime statistics in Alabama in the context of
the national trend, as well as the trend in New York, a
state that has introduced a series of notable drug reform
measures in recent years. Since the beginning of this
century, New York has experienced a dramatic 25
percent decrease in its rate of violent crime, and a 22
percent decrease in property crime, in contrast to more
moderate trends for both the nation as a whole, and for
the state of Alabama.
Moreover, Alabamians have suffered very sharp
increases in crime rates for murder (up by 20 percent),
robbery (up by 25 percent), burglary (up by 8 percent)
and auto theft (up by 7 percent), while New Yorkers
have enjoyed huge reductions in these same crimes
(murder down by 16 percent, robbery down by 25
percent, burglary down by 27 percent, and auto theft
down by a whopping 49 percent).

47

Code of Alabama - Title 13A: Criminal Code - Section 13A-12-213 - Unlawful possession of marihuana in the first degree, and Code of Alabama - Title 13A:
Criminal Code - Section 13A-12-214 - Unlawful possession of marihuana in the second degree. , viewed Dec. 3, 2010 at: http://law.onecle.com/alabama/criminalcode/13A-12-213.html.
48
Alabama Department of Corrections. “FY2007 Inmate Statistical Report.” Montgomery, AL. Accessed online on September 6, 2009, at
http://www.doc.state.al.us/reports.asp.

38

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

Comparing crime rates and incarceration rates

How could this be?

Comparing crime rates with incarceration rates
since 2000, Alabama stands out as a state with
rapid prison population growth, but relatively little
progress in terms of crime reduction. Alabama’s
incarceration rate jumped by 11 percent – from 549
per 100,000 residents in 2000 to 615 per 100,000
residents in 2007. During the same period of time,
New York – a state where violent crime fell at a rate
three times greater than Alabama’s – was able to
reduce its incarceration rate by 19 percent.

According to a landmark study by a panel of experts
convened in 1978 by the National Academy of
Sciences, empirical evidence does not offer strong
support for the notion that increasing criminal
penalties deters crime.49 A more recent review of
deterrence research investigated the relationship
between sentencing severity and general crime
deterrence and, again, found no evidence to support
the hypothesis that harsher sentences reduce levels of
crime.50
However, what about incapacitation? Since sending
people to prison prevents them from committing
crime in the community for the duration of their
prison sentences, is it not simply logical to assume
that increased reliance on imprisonment would
produce a reduction in crime rates? That logic of
“more prison = less crime” fades as you look more
closely at the overly simplistic equation. In fact, as
is illustrated in the comparison between New York
and Alabama above, there appears to be no direct
relationship between incarceration rates and crime
rates. This is not to say that sending more people to
prison has no effect. But national experts on crime
trends agree that incarceration probably accounts for
no more than about 25 percent of the decline in
violent crimes. They see other factors –
demographics, drug abuse patterns, police tactics,
employment levels – as having more far-reaching
effects on crime rates.51

B. neW YorK: downsizing prisons through

drug reform
New York has been one of the few states to attempt to
address the needs of children who have incarcerated
parents. The Children of Incarcerated Parents Program
(CHIPP), run by the New York City Administration for
49

Blumstein, Alfred, Jacqueline Cohen, and Daniel Nagin. “Deterrence and Incapacitation: Estimating the Effects of Criminal Sanctions on Crime Rates.”
Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press. 1978.
50
Doob, Anthony N. and Cheryl Marie Webster. “Sentence Severity and Crime: Accepting the Null Hypothesis” in Crime and Justice, v. 30, edited by Michael H.
Tonry. New York and London: Oxford University Press. 2003.
51
Blumstein, Alfred, and Joel Wallman (eds.). The Crime Drop in America. Cambridge University Press 2000.

39

Children’s Services, offers a solid visitation program for
children and their imprisoned parents. It also provides
specialized training to caseworkers on addressing the
special needs of children with an incarcerated parent.
New York has also recognized that a shift away from
over-incarceration is necessary. It is hoped that as a
result of recent and, potentially, ongoing sentencing
and drug policy reforms the rate of incarcerated parents
in New York state prisons will quickly decline.52
New York has experienced a remarkable decline in its
state prison population over the past decade. The
U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reports that
New York’s prison system held 62,211 people at
midyear of 2008, down from 72,899 in 1999. This
decline followed decades of prison population
expansion and prison construction driven in large
part by two sentencing laws launched as part of the
war on drugs.
In 1973, Gov. Nelson Rockefeller pushed a program of
mandatory minimum drug laws through the New York
State Legislature. Under the Rockefeller Drug Laws,
sales of just two ounces, or possession of just four ounces,
of a narcotic drug was made a Class A felony, carrying a
minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum of life in
prison. Most people convicted of drug crimes are
sentenced to lesser prison terms after conviction for Class
B, C or D drug sales and possession offenses.
The Second Felony Offender Law, enacted in tandem
with the Rockefeller Drug Laws, mandates a prison
sentence for a person convicted of any two felonies
within 10 years, regardless of the circumstances or the
nature of the offenses. Together, these harsh sentencing
laws have flooded New York’s prisons with people
convicted of petty drug offenses. Annual drug
commitments to prison rose from 470 in 1970 to 8,521

in 1999, helping to swell the prison population from
12,144 in 1972 to a high of 72,899 in 1999.53

‘Smart’ reforms gain ground over ‘get tough’ policies
After 2001, efforts to toughen sentencing laws and
stiffen parole policies began to fade in New York as
legislators struggled to trim spending in the face of
projected budget shortfalls. But the shift was driven by
more than fiscal constraints. Advocates for drug reform
had begun to cite a growing body of policy research
demonstrating that a public health approach to the
problem of drug abuse and related criminal activity
produced far better outcomes for public safety than
prison sentences.
• A research team at the RAND Corporation
estimated that money spent on treatment for people
prosecuted on federal cocaine charges should reduce
serious crimes against both property and persons
about 15 times more effectively than incarceration.54
• A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
evaluation of clients in publicly funded treatment
programs found that drug use dropped by 41 percent in
the year after treatment. The proportion of clients
selling drugs dropped by 78 percent and the proportion
arrested on any charge dropped by 64 percent.55
• The “CALDATA” study in California found that for
every tax dollar invested in substance abuse
treatment, taxpayers saved seven dollars in future
crime- and health-related costs.56
• A Washington State Institute for Public Policy
cost/benefit study showed that for those convicted of
drug offenses, a dollar invested in imprisonment
produces just $0.37 in crime reduction benefits, while
Washington’s drug courts produce $1.74 in benefits
for each dollar spent.57

52
As of 2008, “[a]lmost 73% of New York’s incarcerated women were parents, compared to more than 58% of men.” Women in Prison Project, Correctional Association
of New York, Imprisonment and Families Fact Sheet, April 2009.
53
New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services. “1999 Crime and Justice Annual Report.” Online at http://criminaljustice.state.ny.us/crimnet/ojsa/cja_99/contents.htm.
54
Caulkins, Jonathan P. and C. Peter Rydell, William Schwabe, James R. Chiesa “Are Mandatory Minimum Sentences Cost-Effective?” Santa Monica, CA: RAND
Drug Policy Research Center. 1998.
55
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “The National Treatment Improvement Evaluation
Study (NTIES) Preliminary Report: The Persistent Effects of Substance Abuse Treatment—One Year Later.” Washington, DC: SAMHSA. 1996.
56
California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. “Evaluating Recovery Services: The California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment (CALDATA).”
Sacramento, CA: California State Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs. 1994.
57
Barnoski, Robert and Steve Aos. “Washington State’s Drug Courts for Adult Defendants: Outcome Evaluation and Cost-Benefit Analysis.” Olympia, WA:
Washington State Institute of Public Policy. March 2003.

40

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

• A study of the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Drug
Treatment Alternative to Prison (DTAP) program
found that treatment is effective, even for individuals
with very significant criminal histories, who have
already spent an average four years behind bars. After
two years, those placed in DTAP were 26-percent less
likely to be arrested, 36-percent less likely to be
reconvicted and 67-percent less likely to return to
prison than the matched comparison group.58

prisoners with a clean prison record and no prior
violent felony record can apply to the commissioner
of corrections for a “presumptive release” after serving
five-sixths of their minimum term. If granted a
“presumptive release,” the Corrections Commissioner
releases a person to parole supervision without having
to go before the parole board.

In 2004, legislators enacted more substantial changes
in the Rockefeller Drug Laws.
They doubled the drug amounts
that trigger mandatory prison
sentences – from four to eight
A statewide coalition of
ounces
for class “A1,” and from
service providers, policy
two to four ounces for class “A2.”
advocates, treatment and
The infamous “A1”
medical professionals had
indeterminate 15-to-life sentence
was replaced by a determinate
convinced lawmakers that
sentence
to be set within a range
shorter sentences for drug
of eight to 20 years. More than
convictions, restoration of
400 people already in prison for
judicial discretion in drug
“A1” convictions were granted
the right to petition judges for
sentencing, and much
early release under the
broader access to a wide
sentencing provisions of the new
range of treatment options
law.

Encouraged by these findings,
policymakers began to embrace
modest reforms in both sentencing
and parole policy over the next
few years. Modification of the
1973 drug laws began without
fanfare in 2003 when Gov. Pataki
quietly inserted two drug reform
provisions in the state’s 634-page
budget bill as part of his effort to
resolve the state’s huge budget
deficit. One measure provided
that those serving a mandatory
sentence under the Rockefeller
Drug Laws could receive a “merit
time” reduction of their sentence
are good public policy.
in the amount of one-third of the
In addition to shortening the
minimum imposed by the court
minimum term for class “A1”
for good behavior and
convictions, legislators slightly
participation in work or
shortened terms for non-violent class “B” convictions.
treatment programs. The reform also moved up
Legislators
reduced the amount of time people are
parole eligibility for some 75 prisoners who were
required to serve before becoming eligible for drug
serving a 15-to-life sentence and had already served
treatment
by six months. And those convicted of
10 years behind bars.
drug offenses in class “A2” through class “E” are able
to earn an additional “supplemental merit time”
A second measure expanded the Department of
reduction
of one-sixth off their minimum sentence.
Correctional Services “earned eligibility” program,
under which certain prisoners who complete work
and/or treatment program assignments may earn a
certificate that makes parole release presumptive at
the first hearing unless the parole board decides
otherwise. Eligibility to earn a parole presumption
was expanded from prisoners serving a minimum
sentence of up to six years to include those serving
terms of up to eight years. Further, “nonviolent”

In 2005, legislators revisited the Rockefeller Drug Laws
once more, adding a “merit time” allowance for people
convicted under class “A2,” and granting them the right
to petition judges for re-sentencing. Judges were given
broader ranges for determinate sentences, increasing their
discretion in handling re-sentencing.
These reforms provided significant relief from some of the

58

CASA. “Crossing the Bridge: An Evaluation of the Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) Program.” New York: The National Center for Addiction and
Substance Abuse. March 2003.

41

n Judicial discretion to place people convicted of
drug offenses into treatment and to offer second
chances when appropriate.

harshest provisions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, but
they did not go far enough. Judges still lacked
discretion to decide whether treatment would be more
effective than imprisonment for an individual
convicted of a B-Felony drug offense, or whether
someone facing sentencing for a second felony
conviction might be a good candidate for an
alternative to incarceration.

n Diversion for people who commit crimes other
than drug offenses because of issues stemming
from substance dependence.

Finally, on April 7, 2009, New York’s Governor David
Patterson signed into law historic reforms of the
Rockefeller Drug Laws that addressed these problems.

crucial elements of new York state's
2009 drug law reforms include:

n Diversion for people who commit drug offenses
but are not drug users or chemically dependent.
n Diversion eligibility for people convicted of
second felony offenses.
n Opportunities to try community-based treatment
without the threat of a longer sentence for failure.
n Plea deferral options, especially for non-citizen
green card holders who will become deportable
if they take a plea to any drug conviction, even if
it is later withdrawn.
n Opportunities for re-sentencing more than 900
drug prisoners who received indeterminate
sentences under the longer pre-2005 sentencing
range and who are still serving those sentences
in state prison.
n Sealing provisions that will protect people who
finish their sentences from employment
discrimination based on the past offense.
n The option to dismiss a case in the interests of
justice when the accused has successfully
completed a treatment program.

59

A statewide coalition of service providers, policy
advocates, treatment and medical professionals
had convinced lawmakers that shorter sentences
for drug convictions, restoration of judicial
discretion in drug sentencing, and much broader
access to a wide range of treatment options are
good public policy.
The Rockefeller Drug Laws were extremely
expensive, pushing the proportion of people
convicted for drug offenses in the state up from 11
percent to a high of 34 percent. The 2009 reforms
are expected to greatly decrease this load on the
prison budget, saving New York Taxpayers some
$250 million dollars each year.59
In addition to Rockefeller Drug Law reform, other
measures enacted in New York during the same
year will make it easier for people to gain early
release. Individuals suffering from a serious and
permanent medical disability who do not pose a
threat to public safety will be eligible for medical
parole after serving half of their prison term.
People who take college courses, enroll in stateapproved apprenticeships, or work as a prison
hospice aide can qualify for increased “merit time”
credits off their sentence. Eligibility for early
release through the “shock prison camp” program
will be extended to more people serving terms of
non-violent crimes.

Hastings, Deborah. “Money problems and crowded prisons lead states to pull back the hammer on get-tough laws.” Newsday, April 4, 2009.

42

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

reliance on imprisonment as a crime control
“ Primary
strategy, or – for that matter – as drug policy, is
neither effective nor economical, as compared to the
many sentencing and correctional reforms embraced
in many states in recent years.

With 7,000 empty prison beds, New York’s
correctional managers are effecting long-overdue
closure of three state prisons, and mothballing
annexes at seven prisons that will remain in
operation. With some of Alabama’s largest prisons
crammed to three times their designed capacity, the
contrast with New York’s approach to drug control
seems especially pertinent:
• Between 2000 and 2008, the number of people
admitted to prison for drug offenses in New York
declined by 37 percent. In Alabama, that
number rose by 54 percent.
• The number of people admitted to prison for
possession of marijuana averages 395 each year,
while in New York (a state with more than four
times the population) the average is 50.
• Marijuana possession represents less than one
percent of prison admissions for drugs in New York,
while in Alabama, this crime makes up more than
11 percent of all drug admissions.
Primary reliance on imprisonment as a crime control
strategy, or – for that matter – as drug policy, is
neither effective nor economical, as compared to the
many sentencing and correctional reforms embraced
in many states in recent years. Since 2000, state
legislators in more than half the states have taken
steps to modify or repeal mandatory sentencing laws,
to shorten prison sentences, to increase the rate at
which low-risk prisoners are released from
confinement, and/or to reduce the numbers of
60

”

parolees who are returned to prison for purely
technical violations of parole rules.
During 2008, 17 states embraced new reform efforts
that were designed to improve sentencing practices,
revise drug policies, reduce parole revocations and
increase racial justice.60 Contrary to the warnings of
those who opposed such reforms, crime rates have
continued to fall. The 2008 FBI Uniform Crime
Report indicates that the number of violent crimes,
property crimes and arsons throughout the U.S. has
declined, with murder and aggravated assault down by
four percent, forcible rape down by three percent, and
robbery down by two percent.
***
Given the significant pain and costs of parental
incarceration to children, the families that care for
them in the absence of the incarcerated parent and
society-at-large, the contrasting lessons of Alabama
and New York demand the attention of policymaker
and the public. If we continue down the same path,
our prisons will continue to explode on the inside,
and a skyrocketing number of children will suffer on
the outside. If we heed the example of New York, and
make pragmatic and humane decisions about when
prison is truly necessary to protect public safety – and
when it isn’t – our young people will have a chance to
blossom into the mothers, fathers and caregivers
needed to nurture vibrant communities.

King, Ryan S. The State of Sentencing 2008: Developments in Policy and Practice. Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project. February 2009.

43

iV. conclusion

T

he pain of parental incarceration described in Part II
visits a plethora of ills upon the children who are left
behind, causing immediate pain and suffering, and (as we
have seen) contributing over the long haul to
psychological, economic and social deficits which will
damage prospects for healthy, productive and prosperous
adult lives. But blame for these troubles cannot be simply
laid at the feet of parents. State actors share plenty of
blame.
A steady stream of harsh, overly-punitive drug laws have
directly resulted in more children left behind while one or
both parents serve long sentences in prison. While
immediate solutions to mitigate the negative effects to
children of mass incarceration are sorely needed, we must
ask ourselves the ultimate question: Is the price too high?
Our findings unequivocally point to the need to revisit the
fundamental place that prisons occupy in our society.
In cases where imprisonment is unavoidable, the adverse
impacts on children must be recognized, and steps, such as
those identified throughout Part II, must be taken to
address and ameliorate the effects of trauma, economic
distress and stigma.
But by far the most logical measure for preventing harm to
children is to send fewer parents to prison. Neither the best
interests of children, nor the public safety interests of
people living in their communities, are served by
shortsighted approaches to the problem of drug abuse in
particular. Mandatory prison sentences and other legal
barriers to diversion from prison into effective treatment,
education and job training programs are simply
counterproductive.
The wasteful and ineffective laws and policies that have
swept such large numbers of parents into the criminal
justice system, especially the laws that have filled so many
of the nation’s prison cells with people convicted of lowlevel, nonviolent drug crimes, are being reconsidered by a
growing number of state and federal policymakers.
The reforms described in Part III represent the beginning of
a major national shift in drug control policy, from a rigid
criminal justice frame to a public health strategy where the
primary focus is on treatment, prevention and harm

44

reduction. These new approaches provide critical tools for
strengthening families and increasing the well-being of all
children in high-risk communities.
Sentencing reforms that encourage use of drug treatment
programs reduce children’s exposure to family risk factors.
Use of alternative penalties to prison, like restitution and
community service require accountability for crimes
committed and preserve family ties. These options provide
far better outcomes than warehousing parents under
crowded, sub-standard prison conditions.
Moreover, incarceration costs far more than the provision
of treatment, education and job training in the
community. Imprisonment is not a cost-effective option for
reducing the risks that face the children of people
convicted of low-level drug crimes. Well-designed
evidence-based treatment options not only save tax dollars,
they can provide safer streets and healthier communities.
The massive investment of public dollars in prisons over
the past three decades has come at the expense of critical
opportunity costs. Both financial and social capital has
been drained from already disadvantaged urban
neighborhoods that a great majority of the nation’s
incarcerated people leave behind, and to which almost all
will return. The resources and opportunities that children
need in order to have a shot at a brighter future was largely
stripped from these communities, as more and more money
was directed to the construction and operation of new
prisons.
Neighborhood schools are crumbling. Poorly paid teachers
find themselves obliged to pay for basic educational supplies
out of their own pockets. Hospitals and clinics are
closed. Jobs with decent pay and benefits are few and far
between. Illegal drugs are one of the few commodities that
remain in plentiful supply.
These neighborhoods are sorely in need of reinvestment in
the futures of the children who reside there. The choices
made by policymakers over the next decade – to continue
the wasteful drug laws and policies of the past, or to turn
the corner toward a brighter, healthier day – will profoundly
affect the lives of children today, as well as the adults they
will become tomorrow. n

Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration

aBouT THe auTHors:

PaTricia allard is Deputy Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network. For the past ten
years she has worked in the United States advocating for criminal justice and drug policy reform
— with a particular emphasis on the needs of low-income women and women of color, at the
Sentencing Project and the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. As a
Soros Justice Fellow, Ms. Allard developed a ‘research to action’ initiative that resulted in child
welfare reform, affecting over one million children whose parents are incarcerated. Ms. Allard
is the author of numerous book chapters, journal articles and national reports, including Life
Sentences: Denying Welfare Benefits to Women Convicted of Drug Offenses and Rebuilding
Families, Reclaiming Lives: State Obligations to Children in Foster Care and their Incarcerated
Parents.
Patricia holds a Bachelor of Arts from St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, an LL.B. from
Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and an M.A. from the Centre of Criminology at the
University of Toronto. She was called to the bar of Ontario in 1998.

JudiTH greene is a criminal justice policy analyst and a founding partner in Justice Strategies.
Over the past decade she has received a Soros Senior Justice Fellowship from the Open Society
Institute, served as a research associate for the RAND Corporation, as a senior research fellow
at the University of Minnesota Law School, and as director of the State-Centered Program for
the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. From 1985 to 1993 she was Director of Court Programs
at the Vera Institute of Justice. Ms. Greene’s articles on criminal sentencing issues, police
practices, and correctional policy have appeared in numerous publications, including The
American Prospect, Corrections Today, Crime and Delinquency, Current Issues in Criminal Justice,
The Federal Sentencing Reporter, The Index on Censorship, Judicature, The Justice Systems
Journal, Overcrowded Times, Prison Legal News, The Rutgers Law Journal, and The Wake Forest
Law Review.

45

 

 

Prisoner Education Guide side
CLN Subscribe Now Ad
The Habeas Citebook Ineffective Counsel Side