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Parenting From Behind Bars

Why the fate of parents in prison affects all of us

Marie Gillespie
Source: Marie Gillespie

This guest post was written by Marie Gillespie, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Southern California.

For most new moms, the transition to parenthood can be daunting. We ask the usual questions – “Will I be a good mother? Will I know what to do? Do I have enough support?”

How about other questions like, “Will I be chained to my bed while I deliver my baby?” or “How many times a month will I be able to videoconference with my son?”

Have you never asked yourself those questions? That means you’re probably not one of the hundreds of thousands of parents taking care of a child behind bars. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, nearly 66,000 mothers were parenting 150,000 children from their prison cells in 2007, and that’s not even counting women in county jails. Given that a quarter of a million women are currently incarcerated in our US correctional facilities and that well over half of them have children under the age of 18, the numbers are larger than we think.

So now maybe you’re asking, why should I care? These women are hardened offenders who made bad choices and deserve the punishment that society gives them. They’re deviants—probably violent offenders who are a drain on taxpayers. Right? Even if that is your position, which isn’t entirely accurate since only about 30% of imprisoned women are there for violent crimes, you’re overlooking the innocent bystanders that are getting caught in the crossfire: the children. From babies born behind bars to teens receiving homework advice from their mom’s prison cell – let me tell you why we should care.

Pixabay, Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay, Creative Commons

The intergenerational cycle of incarceration means that children with incarcerated parents are up to 5 times more likely to end up in jail or prison themselves. In fact, parents’ criminal activity is one of the strongest predictors of later youth offending. Over half of juvenile offenders have at least one parent in prison. Why? Risk factors like poverty and trauma may drive these effects. We know that many inmates have experienced more than their share of disadvantage, stigma, mental illness, addiction, and physical and sexual abuse. Is it so surprising then that their kids are up to six times more likely to display serious aggressive behavior and to be expelled from school compared to those with non-incarcerated parents?

For parents on the inside, the challenge isn’t just how to address these “acting-out” issues, but also to halt this toxic transmission of imprisonment. Where does it stop?

The good news is that children who receive strong parenting from their incarcerated moms and dads are less likely to be involved with crime themselves. Given the undeniable link between parental offending and children’s future arrest rates, and the fact that parenting is known to be a strong protective factor, policy efforts have focused on providing family programs at correctional facilities.

Parenting programs vary in intensity (1 to 90 hours), duration (1 to 24 weeks), problems targeted (parenting stress versus children’s academic achievement), and format (education-based or involving children in the interventions). Most participants have reported great improvements in their psychological functioning, family cohesion, empathy toward children, parenting skills, and some inmates have shown decreases in future child maltreatment and harsh discipline practices. Unfortunately, most of these positive outcomes are somewhat anecdotal, as most facilities do not vigorously evaluate their programs. Of those that have been experimentally studied, results show that involvement in parenting interventions was linked to significantly lower re-arrest rates for participants compared to non-participants.

Although 90% of female facilities offer parenting programs, very few incorporate actual visitations with children. Why? The average distance between correctional facilities and children’s residences is 160 miles and traveling those distances can come at a great cost to temporary caretakers (foster parents, relatives). Fortunately, videoconferencing technology has alleviated some of the time and costs that come with commuting, but nothing quite compares to physical visitation. Providing something as simple as transportation can make a world of difference. For example, Get On The Bus is a California-based program that was developed by the Center for Restorative Justice Works and provides free bus rides to and from prisons every year on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. During this event, children and caregivers are provided travel bags, a photo of each child with their parent, and meals for the day; after a four-hour visit, children receive a teddy bear with a letter from their parent and counseling is provided before they are transported home. Funding only allows for approximately 1,000 children to get free transportation a few times a year. Researchers have proposed other options to address this common child-to-parent barrier. In their recent article for the Prison Journal. Hoffman and colleagues (2010) suggested, “One way to overcome the distance between children and their incarcerated parents is to provide in-prison and/or community-based residential facilities where parents can live with their children.” Although most states have supervised community programs, mothers of newborn infants are typically the only inmates eligible for enrollment.

Chris Schmich, Creative Commons
Source: Chris Schmich, Creative Commons

One example of a more long-term visitation-based program is Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB). Making it possible for children to visit their mothers in facilities, staff provide daughters with transportation to and from jails and prisons, as well as other resources (e.g., food, art supplies). Starting in Maryland in 1992, GSBB has expanded to 17 states with the help of Department of Justice grants. Programming focuses on increasing girls’ self-esteem in relation to the stigma of having an incarcerated parent, promoting positive health behaviors, and enhancing mother-daughter attachment and communication. Studies have shown that children enrolled in GSBB have great improvements in psychological wellbeing, academic achievement, and communication and attachment with their mothers.

One of the best-researched programs is an adaptation of the evidence-based treatment Parent Management Training, called Parenting Inside Out (PIO). Several versions currently exist: Jail (20 hours) and Community Reintegration formats (48 hours) that can be combined, and Prison versions (90 hours or 60 hours). The intensive prison-based version includes groups of 15 parents meeting for 2.5 hour sessions 3 times a week for a total of 12 weeks. Treatment focuses on improving positive parent-child interactions, learning about child development, child health and safety, and positive parenting from prison through letter writing, phone calls, and visits. Interactive methods are used, such as discussions, class projects, skill-building exercises, video clips, and role plays. Individual meetings are also incorporated between the group sessions. Research on PIO shows a significant positive impact on parent adjustment, parent–caregiver relationships, parenting skills, and reductions in re-arrest rates and substance abuse after release. Emerging research has found great promise for modified versions of other evidence-based treatments for incarcerated parents, such as Parent-Child Interaction Therapy for imprisoned mothers.

Where is the development of these important programs heading? Some researchers insist that interventionists should focus on the preparation of reuniting mothers with their children after they are released, rather than solely teaching them to parent from a distance. Right now, it’s unclear how information taught behind bars translates to post-release parenting practices. In addition to returning to their communities with heavy stigma, released mothers typically struggle (financially, emotionally, and logistically) to reunite with their children, whom are sometimes in foster care or living with distant relatives. Parents Under Pressure is an example of a home-based reunification program for multi-problem families, including recently released female offenders. Research has found this program helps reduce child abuse potential, rigid parenting practices, and child behavior problems. Other intervention developers have effectively focused on increasing the co-parenting alliance with children’s temporary caregivers while mothers are serving their times (Parenting From Inside: Making the Mother-Child Connection). Overall, policy makers are recognizing the importance of interrupting this vicious cycle of crime and are pushing for innovative program development; from providing better prenatal care to pregnant inmates to facilitating visitations for moms and teenagers, we still have a long way to go.

Not only do these programs help improve the parent-child relationship, they may save us money in the long run. It costs an average of $31,000 a year to keep one person in prison in the US (here in California, that number is $47,000 a year). If parenting programs help reduce moms’ re-arrest rates and help keep their kids out of prison in the future, a relatively small initial investment may save us millions of taxpayer dollars in the decades to come.

Even if you don’t care about these “offenders and deviants” you should care about their children, especially given the likelihood that they will follow in their mother’s prison-bound footsteps. All too often, it seems like our gut reaction to prisoners is to blame and to distance ourselves by saying “I went through hard times too and I never chose to commit a crime.” One thing to keep in mind is that we are all born into completely different environments (even if we live in the same house). We are consumed by factors that are undeniably out of our control, from our parents, communities, resources, genetic material (which includes neurological susceptibility for things like addiction or poor impulse control), and exposure to traumatic experiences.

Far from excusing criminal behavior, I am asking you to look beyond one person’s actions (which are often fueled by survival instincts) and to consider the entire context of someone’s life. Because the odds are against the children – 6 times against them. Those who beat the odds will most likely be the children who receive that extra help from some of the programs detailed above – help to connect with their parents and help to break the cycle of the criminal culture engulfing their worlds.



Block, K. J., & Potthast, M. J. (1998). Girl Scouts Beyond Bars: Facilitating parent– child contact in correctional settings. Child Welfare, 77, 561–578.

Crain, C.M. (2008). Children of offenders and the cycle of intergenerational incarceration. Corrections Today, 70, 64-67.

Eddy, M. J., Martinez, C. R., Schiffman, T., Newton, R., Olin, L., Leve, L., et al. (2008). Development of a multisystemic parent management training intervention for incarcerated parents, their children and families. Clinical Psychologist, 12, 86–98.

Frye, S., & Dawe, S. (2008). Interventions for women prisoners and their children in the post-release period. Clinical Psychologist, 12, 99-108.

Glaze, L. & Maruschak, L. (2010). Parents in prison and their minor children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Retrieved from

Goodwin, V., Davis, B., & Tomison, A. (2011). Crime families: Gender and the intergenerational transfer of criminal tendencies. Woden: Australian Institute of Criminology

Hoffmann, H. C., Byrd, A. L., & Kightlinger, A. M. (2010). Prison programs and services for incarcerated parents and their underage children: Results from a national survey of correctional facilities. The Prison Journal, 90, 397-416.

Loper, A. B., & Tuerk, E. H. (2011). Improving the emotional adjustment and communication patterns of incarcerated mothers: Effectiveness of a prison parenting intervention. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 20, 89-101.

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