In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children of Incarcerated Parents

  • Introduction
  • Demographic Trends and Racial Issues
  • Developmental Issues
  • Programs for Children of Incarcerated Parents
  • Parenting Challenges from Prison
  • Reentry Issues and Challenges
  • Public Policy

Social Work Children of Incarcerated Parents
Yvette R. Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 07 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0174


An estimated 1.7 million children have parents in the criminal justice system, and more than ten million young children have experienced the incarceration of one or more parents and experienced patterns of familial incarceration. African American children represent 53 percent of that number; white children, 23 percent; and Latino children, 23 percent. Concerned by the number of children in general and the number of children of color in particular with parents in the criminal justice system, researchers and social policy advocates have begun to investigate the impact of parental incarceration on a variety of immediate and long-term developmental and clinical outcomes for children of incarcerated parents to design programs for both children and their parents to buffer the effects of parental incarceration and to craft legislation that protects their basic rights. This article brings together the most up-to-date research on the issues that confront children with parents in the criminal justice system.

Demographic Trends and Racial Issues

Over the past few decades, numerous books and articles have been written discussing the effects of parental incarceration on young children’s developmental outcomes and addressing the specific issue of the impact of parental incarceration on families of color and the trend in mass incarceration of neighborhoods. Pettit and Western 2004, Alexander 2010, and Foster and Fagen 2009 discuss the impact as it relates to communities of color, with a specific focus on mass incarceration of neighborhoods. Glaze and Maruschak 2010 addresses the trends in the numbers of children with parents in the criminal justice system and provides information on the racial differences and present data documenting the increase in the number of the mothers in the criminal justice system. Johnston 1995 provides a general description of the influence of parental incarceration on family functioning. Harris, et al. 2010 and Eddy and Poehlmann 2010 offer a practical, theoretical, developmental, and clinical lens to the issue of children of incarcerated parents whereas Harris and Miller 2006 focuses on describing the complexities that exist when African American men and fathers are incarcerated.

  • Alexander, Michelle. 2010. The New Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness. New York: New Press.

    Provides a comprehensive discussion of the racial legacy of mass incarceration of neighborhoods for communities of color. The book is divided into six chapters with each addressing issues of laws, imprisonment, and racial discrimination. The book concludes with a discussion of how mass incarceration has become the new Jim Crow of the 21st century.

  • Eddy, J. Mark, and Julie Poehlmann, eds. 2010. Children of incarcerated parents: A handbook for researchers and practitioners. New York: Urban Institute.

    Edited book that provides information on the historical trends in parental incarceration and a discussion of relationship and attachment issues for children of incarcerated parents; also touches on parenting programs in prison and concludes with suggestions for subsequent research and interventions designed for children of incarcerated parents.

  • Foster, H., and J. Fagan. 2009. The mass incarceration of parents in America: Issues of race, ethnicity, collateral damage to children and prisoner reentry. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 623.1: 179–194.

    DOI: 10.1177/0002716208331123

    Offers a review of theoretical accounts of mass incarceration and provides results from a series of studies documenting the economic, psychological, and social impact of mass incarceration on communities of color. Appropriate for researchers and graduate students. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Glaze, L. E., and L. Maruschak. 2010. Parents in prison and their minor children. NCJ 222984. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Studies.

    Provides detailed data on trends in parental incarceration with a focus on background demographics on parents, offense, and gender.

  • Harris, Yvette R., James A. Graham, and Gloria J. Oliver Carpenter. 2010. Children of incarcerated parents: Theoretical, developmental and clinical implications. New York: Springer.

    Edited book that provides statistics on trends in incarceration, addresses the developmental challenges experienced by children of incarcerated parents, and discusses parenting programs and the challenges of reentry.

  • Harris, Othello, and R. Robin Miller, eds. 2006. Impacts of incarceration on the African American family. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.

    An edited volume that provides a comprehensive coverage of changes in family identity as a result of paternal incarceration, changes in martial relationships, and financial strain. The volume concludes with suggestions for policy initiatives. Useful for researchers, practitioners, and graduate students.

  • Johnston, Denise. 1995. Effects of parental incarceration. In Children of incarcerated parents. Edited by Katherine Gabel and Denise Johnston, 59–88. New York: Lexington.

    Article examines the developmental stages and reaction to maternal incarceration. Findings indicate that children in early childhood seem to be more negatively impacted than school-age or older children by maternal incarceration.

  • Pettit, Becky, and Bruce Western. 2004. Mass imprisonment and the life course: Race and class inequality in U.S. incarceration. American Sociological Review 69.2: 151–169.

    DOI: 10.1177/000312240406900201

    Provides a review of the research and statistics on racial and class differences in the incarceration rates and argues that imprisonment has become a common life event for African American men. Good source for those requiring additional race and socioeconomic data on incarceration in the United States. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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