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

The below intern blog is a commentary on reproductive rights of incarcerated women based on the article that can be found below the commentary.

Often times the consequences of incarceration and the barriers faced in successful reentry are usually limited to the ex-offender perspective. In the process of studying these issues, far too often we forget to consider the most vulnerable and innocent victims: the children of offenders. Through no fault of their own, they are thrown into circumstances that they have no control over and have a tremendous impact on their lives. According to recent research the loss of a parent to incarceration often results in trauma very similar experienced in the death or divorce of a parent. Children of these offenders often face the unique stigma of lowered expectations. They face the assumption that, just like their parents, failure and possibly prison is their destiny. Coupled with research demonstrating increased behavioral and health problems, it seems that children of incarcerated individuals face a perilous path to reach adulthood successfully. If you then stop to consider that African American and Latino children are respectively 7 and 2.5 times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children, the societal implications become even clearer. The policies of mass incarceration are imposing costs that disproportionately affect minority communities and will soon bankrupt the remaining social foundation. The children are our future, let us give them the best chance to succeed.

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

By Judith Greene and Patricia Allard



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.