Children of Incarcerated Parents

Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. (Summer 2002). "Children of Incarcerated Parents." Alaska Justice Forum 19(2): 2–3. Despite the enormous growth in the U.S. prison population, particularly in the number of women incarcerated, very little is known about children, either in the country as a whole or in Alaska, who now have at least one parent in jail. While there are some national estimates of the number of prisoners who are parents of minor children, in Alaska the Department of Corrections has no firm figures. If Alaska figures parallel available national estimates, several thousand children currently have at least one parent in the state’s prisons.

Despite the enormous growth in the U.S. prison population, particularly in the number of women incarcerated, very little is known about children, either in the country as a whole or in Alaska, who now have at least one parent in jail. While there are some national estimates of the number of prisoners who are parents of minor children, in Alaska the Department of Corrections has no firm figures, although the department is aware that the number of incarcerated parents is a sizeable sub-population of the general prison population. If Alaska figures parallel available national estimates, several thousand children currently have at least one parent in the state’s prisons.

In recent months, the Alaska Department of Corrections has joined other state agencies and social service organizations to begin to look at the problems posed by incarcerated parents with minor children. Using a grant from the National Institute of Corrections, Catholic Community Service in Juneau organized a conference in March 2002 that drew together representatives from DOC, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Social services to design a first systematic plan for identifying this population and its needs.

National Data

The Bureau of Justice Statistics has published one of the few statistical analyses of the number of incarcerated inmates with minor children. According to the BJS report “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children” (NCJ 182335), in 1999, state and federal prisons held an estimated 721,500 parents of minor children. In a 1997 survey a majority of both state (55%) and federal (63%) prisoners reported having a child under age 18. According to BJS estimates, 1,372,700 minor children had a father in prison at the end of 1999, and another 126,100 had a mother in prison.

Table 1. Estimated Number of State and Federal Prisoners with Minor Children, 1991 and 1999

The overall percentage of prisoners with minor children in 1999 (56%) had not changed much from 1991 (57%), but because of the growth in prison population, the actual number of children with an incarcerated parent rose steeply—from 936,500 in 1991 to 1,498,800 in 1999, a 60 percent increase. The number of children with a mother in prison nearly doubled (a 98% increase) between 1991 and 1999, while the number with a father increased by 58 percent.

According to the BJS report, over 40 percent of the parents in both state and federal prisons in 1997 reported sentences of at least ten years. A majority of incarcerated parents in 1997, in both federal and state prisons, were sentenced either for violent offenses or drug crimes. Over two-thirds of the male parents in federal prisons and three-quarters of the female parents were serving time for a drug offense.

Table 2. Selected of Characteristics of Prisoners by Whether Inmates were Parents of Minor Children, 1997

Although a majority of incarcerated parents had some kind of contact with their children at least once a month—phone, mail or visit—almost 57 percent of parents in the state systems and 44 percent in the federal system had never had a visit. A majority of parents in both state (62%) and federal (84%) systems were imprisoned more than 100 miles from their last place of residence.

The BJS report provides only a few details about the children themselves and their lives. The mean age of the children of both federal and state inmates was 8 years, and 22 percent were under 5. A majority lived with either the other parent or another relative. Around 90 percent of incarcerated fathers in both the state and federal systems reported that their children were living with the mother. In contrast, a majority of incarcerated mothers named a grandmother or other relative as the primary care giver for their children. Black children were almost 9 times more likely to have a parent in prison, and Hispanic children 3 times more likely, than white children.

Table 3. Living Situation of Children of Incarcerated Parents, 1997

The Bureau of Justice Statistics report, which used data now already three years old, appears to be the only major research quantitative analysis done recently on this issue by the federal government. Most of the institutes and organizations working in this area cite these figures.

Alaska Data

The degree to which the Alaska prison population reflects these national figures is unknown. There are no statewide figures available on the number of children, their living situations, education, financial support, or contacts with the imprisoned parent. There is no system in place to identify these children. The Department of Corrections does not currently collect information on children of imprisoned offenders in any systematic way. Due to this lack of an overview of the situation and numbers of prisoners with minor children, DOC has no formally articulated policy directly addressed to the needs of this inmate population, and the department does not consider a prisoner’s status as a parent when making facility assignments.

Neither of the other state agencies involved with children—the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services—has assembled data on children of prisoners.

National Institute of Corrections Project

As a result of concern over the situation and needs of this group of children, representatives from each of the major state agencies involved with children, the Children’s Cabinet and Catholic Community Services (CCS) in Juneau, have formed a working group. The efforts of the group have resulted in a three-year National Institute of Corrections grant to CCS, one of ten awarded to agencies nationwide to study the situation of the children of incarcerated parents. One of the objectives of the project in Alaska is to devise a mechanism for collecting data on this population as a first step toward identifying their needs.

The March conference organized under the auspices of the NIC project brought together for the first time representatives from DOC and other state agencies to explore the issues presented by the children of prisoners. Many of the conference participants had personal professional experience involving children with incarcerated parents. It also emerged that many agencies and individual professionals in the state were already trying to meet the special needs of these children. As an outcome of the conference, the Catholic Community Service NIC project staff are beginning to assemble a statewide data base identifying all possible sources of information about families of prisoners as well as possible sources for assistance.

An FY 2003 request to the legislature for a half-million dollars to study the issue was rejected.

Some data from the preceding article were taken from the Bureau of Justice Statistics special report “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children”, NCJ 182335.