Children of prison inmates — particularly those in black and Latino households — stand to suffer from their parents’ absence, a new study suggests. The study, which analyzed survey data collected from more than 81,000 adults, found that the likelihood of poor physical and mental health among children with incarcerated parents increased by 18 percent.
Experts say the recent findings make a case for prison reform at a time when the United States has the highest prison population in the world, with more than 2 million inmates in local, state, and federal correctional facilities. The parent inmate population in state and federal prisons more than doubled between the early 1990s and mid-2000s, according to data compiled by Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Today, people with children account for more than half of the U.S. prison population.
“These people were children when this happened, and [their parents’ imprisonment] was a significant disruptive event. That disruptive event has long-term adverse consequences,” Annie Gjelsvik, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of epidemiology in the Brown University School of Public Health, said in a university news release.
Studies have shown that loss of support during a parent’s incarceration can spur feelings of shame in children and distrust in law enforcement. Children with parents in the prison system can also experience a disruption in their development that impairs their ability to healthily cope with future stress. And young people without parents carry a higher risk of poor school performance, delinquency, and abuse or neglect, according to an Urban Institute Justice Policy report.
“Even though we’re using incarceration to stop societal disorder, we’re actually exacerbating the problem in some communities,” Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for prison sentencing policy reform, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “There’s emotional instability during a parent’s absence. Children with incarcerated parents can’t turn to peers to talk about their problems because of the general stigma. This problem disproportionately impacts children of color because of the uneven enforcement of drug laws.”
Factors that impede children’s ability to connect with incarcerated parents include distances between correctional facilities and home that average more than 100 miles and limits on calls or letters that prisoners can receive. The high cost of collect phone calls — caused in part by surcharges by phone companies and correctional departments — often discourage families from maintaining consistent contact with their incarcerated loved ones. Family relationships, especially those of repeat offenders, stand a greater risk of dissolving as a result.
U.S. Health and Human Services officials say that strong parent-child relationships can strengthen children’s physical and emotional well-being, ultimately giving them the skills they need to positively engage others. However, for children with incarcerated parents, few opportunities exist to openly communicate with incarcerated parents.
That’s why correctional facilities across the country have made more of an effort to let inmates enjoy their children’s company in more intimate settings. Last month, an Ohio prison allowed nearly 50 inmates to spend more than two hours with their children during its bi-annual “Family Matters” event that prison officials have credited with lowering the state’s recidivism rate. A group of California children also traveled a great distance to visit their parents in Folsom State Penitentiary as part of a program named “Get on the Bus.” This week, an Illinois state prison hosted its annual “Mom and Me” camp during which more than 13 women inmates reunited with their children, whose ages spanned from seven to 12.