“Don’t Forget Children of Incarcerated Parents”

In my previous blog we noted that more than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated—about 2.3 percent of all children and youth under 18 years of age.

Most Americans do not think about those serving prison sentences.  Even fewer think about the innocent children who miss the presence and nurturing care of their incarcerated parents.  These innocent victims of crime suffer feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and shame.  Having a mom or dad in prison is an awful secret not shared with others. These kids are overwhelmed with sadness and confusion.

I volunteer with Prison Fellowship and help facilitate a “Reentry Preparation” group that meets weekly in a state prison.  The main regret and concern of the 15 men in the group who are parents of one or more children is how they have hurt them, are not present as a dad, and the year(s) they will miss as their kids grow up.  Kids with a mom or dad in prison face numerous challenges.


When Michelle’s mom was sent to prison she had to take care of her three younger siblings, making sure there was food on the table, and keeping the house in order. “I was really mad at her,” Michelle recalls. “We felt abandoned.” She had to drop out of school to help provide for them.  Life was a struggle.  But then one Christmas things turned around. Her mom signed up Michelle and her siblings for Angel Tree.  They received gifts of clothes and toys.  Angel Tree was a connection to their mom and made a difference in their lives—like a part of her was there at home with them.

Bobby was just 7 when his dad was sent to prison.  Visiting him was impossible due to the distance of the prison hours away.  Five times Christmas came and went. No gifts from dad.  But then five years later when Bobby was 12 he received a gift from his father: a brand-new basketball. He proudly put it up on the shelf beside his trophies, only occasionally playing with it on the courts.  Whenever he looks up and sees his gift ball he thinks of his dad, knowing his dad thought about him and had the gift delivered through Angel Tree.


When Anne’s dad entered prison she started hanging out with the wrong crowd.  She was angry, felt an emptiness, and began breaking the law on a path like her father had done.  “I felt mixed up—terrified that my friends may find out about my dad in prison, but yet acting rebellious and bad,” says Anne. Her mom and family struggled that year, but when she got a gift from her dad through Angel Tree her life turned around.  And the next summer it got even better when she was invited to attend Angel Tree camp.  Anne is thankful for the difference the Angel Tree program has made in her life.


Prison Fellowship  believes that a restorative approach to prisoners, former prisoners, and all those affected by crime and incarceration can make communities safer and healthier. The ministry is founded on the conviction that all people are created in God’s image and that no life is beyond God’s reach. The program aims to offer hope, healing, and a new life purpose for those caught up in crime, and the innocent family members who are negatively affected.


Angel Tree”  is a program of Prison Fellowship Ministry that reaches out to the children of prisoners and their families. The program shares God’s love by helping to meet some of the emotional and spiritual needs of the families of prisoners.  Thousands of churches and community organizations have committed to serve more than 285,000 Angel Tree kids this year, and the program is inviting more churches and organizations to get involved in this worthy effort.  Angel Tree is one effort to remember and support the innocent children of parents who are incarcerated—and restore and strengthen relationships between parents in prison and their children.

More information is available online for those interested in becoming involved in this worthy ministry of volunteer service.


“How Prisons Punish Innocent Children”

Prison Fellowship Ministry

Angel Tree Program


How American Prisons Punish Innocent Children

The United States incarcerates about 1.5 million men and women in state and federal prisons today.  The number of men imprisoned is about 1,395,000; and the number of women is about 112,000.  They were convicted of one or more felony crimes and according to sentencing guidelines or a judge’s determination they deserve a prison sentence.  (Those numbers do not include the 740,000 persons held in city and county jails awaiting trial for a felony crime or serving sentences for a misdemeanor conviction.)

Fewer than half of those incarcerated are for violent offenses.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, many are in prison for non-violent and drug-related crimes.  A disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities (Blacks and Hispanics) are sentenced to prison compared to White offenders.  Advocates of sentencing reform argue that America’s sentencing policies are excessively harsh and that prison sentences have not reduced crime or increased public safety.

The point of this blog post however is not to question America’s sentencing policies but to bring our attention to the innocent persons affected by incarceration.  They are the children of incarcerated parents.


A Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities found that about 809,000 men and women prisoners were parents of minor children under the age of 18. The nation’s prisons held about 744,000 fathers having 1.6 million children; and mothers with more than 147,000 children.  More than 1.7 million children have parents who are incarcerated, accounting for 2.3 percent of the American population under 18 years of age. (There are about 74 million U.S. residents under the age of 18.)

  • A majority of prisoners have a minor child, a quarter of which were age 4 or younger and half were age 9 or younger.
  • More than a third of minor children will reach age 18 while their parent is incarcerated.
  • Fewer than half of parents in state prison lived with their minor children either in the month before arrest or just prior to incarceration.
  • Fathers most commonly reported the child’s mother as current caregiver of their children, while mothers most commonly reported the child’s grandparents.
  • Caregivers for children with incarcerated parents include: the other parent, grandparent, other relatives, foster home or agency, friends, or others.

America’s sentencing policies that are part of a “war on crime” and a “war on drugs” beginning in the 1980s have resulted in mass incarceration that ranks the U.S. #1 in the world for the rate of incarceration of its citizens.

Beyond the arguments whether tougher sentencing has reduced crime or brought greater public safety, the use of imprisonment on more convicted offenders has greatly affected communities and innocent persons.


In his book Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged  Neighborhoods Worse, nationally-known criminologist Todd Clear documented the impact of incarceration on families and communities.  Prison sentences negative affect family functioning and result in broken families.  Children with an incarcerated parent have less parental supervision, are at greater risk of parental abuse, and face an increased risk of having their own problems with the justice system.  A child who is exposed to a parent or sibling who went to prison has an increased rather than a decreased risk of incarceration.  Contrary to acting as a deterrent, prison may actually increase rather than decrease crime.

                  Half of parents in state prison reported that they also have had a family                                                         member who had been incarcerated.

                                 Incarceration has many unintended consequences.                                               Children of incarcerated parents are the “collateral consequences” of                                        America’s “tough on crime” policy of mass incarceration.

What can be done to reduce the adverse effects of imprisonment on children?  There are many effective alternatives to incarceration—but that is a long-term solution.  There are programs today that help children of incarcerated parents deal with their loss.

“Stay tuned” for my next blog post when we will see what is being done for children of incarcerated parents—especially during the Christmas holiday season.


Bureau of Justice Statistics on Prison Populations

Prison Inmates with Children Under 18 years of age