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2001 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 7, No. 1
January 2002

Understanding Parents In Prison

As child welfare workers, our ability to establish and maintain a relationship with the parents of the children we serve is critical. If we know and understand the parents, if we can communicate with them, if there is some degree of trust between us, then assessing safety, moving toward permanence, and helping the child flourish are all much easier.

Of course, building a relationship with parents can be difficult when the parent lives at home. But what do you do when the parent lives in jail? How do you handle case management, permanency planning, and visits? How can you evaluate parent progress?

Unfortunately, a growing number of child welfare workers are facing these challenges. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 1997, 9.6% of the mothers and 1.8% of the fathers in state prisons had at least one child in some form of out-of-home care (Mumola, p. 3). Given the trend toward larger prison populations that we saw in the 1990s, it seems likely that if you haven't worked with a child who has an incarcerated parent, you soon will. To provide you with back ground and enhance your work with families in this situation, this article presents you with some basic facts about parents in prison.

Numbers of Incarcerated Parents

A great many of the people serving prison or local jail time in the United States are parents. In 1999, there were 1,284,894 prisoners in the custody of state and federal prisons. Of these, approximately 56% (or 721,500) were the parents to minor children (Mumola, p. 2). If this rate of parenthood holds true for the inmates in local jails, then it is safe to say that there were more than a million parents in jail in 1999. Their children accounted for between 2% and 3% of the children in the country.

The statistics for North Carolina are similar. In June 2001, there were 29,879 men and 2,020 women serving time in North Carolina's state prisons (NCDC). Of these inmates, approximately 17,500 were parents. Their estimated 36,000 minor children accounted for approximately 2% of North Carolina's 1.8 million children (Mumola, NCDC, NCCAI). It is important to note that these figures do not include estimates for the number of North Carolina parents in federal prisons or local jails, or for their children.

Most North Carolina counties capture information about parental incarceration in individual case records, particularly if the agency is attempting to terminate parental rights. However, things generally stop there—like most states, North Carolina does not collect statewide data on foster children with incarcerated parents.

Expanding Knowledge

On the national level there has been a recent surge of interest in parents in prison and the way parental incarceration affects children, families, and communities. This interest is reflected in a series of grants funded recently by the federal government for research in this area, as well as in publications by the Child Welfare League of America, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, and others (for more resources, see Want to Know More). Thanks to these efforts, we know the following about parent prisoners:

The prison population is growing. During the 1990s, the number of inmates (parent and nonparent) in federal and state prisons and local jails grew steadily. Although they make up a small minority of the prison population, growth rates have been higher for women than for men. Since 1990, the annual growth rate for male prisoners has averaged 6.6%, while the increase in women prisoners has averaged 8.5% (Wright & Seymour, p. 6). Since mothers are much more likely to be the sole caregiver for their children, the incarceration of a mother is much more likely to result in her children entering foster care.

There are significant racial disparities in the prison population. African Americans are disproportionately represented in the prison population, just as they are in the foster care population. In 1997 the incidence of incarceration (state and federal) of males per 100,000 among African Americans was 3,253; among Latinos, 1,272; and among Caucasians, 491 (Wright & Seymour, p. 7). As a result of this disproportionality, in 1999 black children were nearly 9 times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children. Hispanic children were 3 times as likely as white children to have an inmate parent (Mumola, p. 2).

Mothers and fathers tend to be incarcerated for different offenses. In 1997 forty-five percent of fathers in state prison were violent offenders, compared to 26% of mothers. Mothers were more likely to be sentenced for drug offenses and fraud (Mumola, p. 6).

Sentences tend to be long. In 1997 fathers in state prison reported serving sentences that were, on average, 5 years longer than those of mothers (12.5 years vs. 7.8 years). Because they tended to commit less serious of fenses than fathers, 48% of mothers in state and federal prisons were serving sentences of less than five years (Mumola, p. 6).

Substance abuse is a major problem. Like many of the other parents involved in the child welfare system, those in prison tend to have problems with substance abuse. "More than 4 in 5 parents (85%) in state prison reported some type of past drug use, and a majority (58%) said that they were using drugs in the month before their current offense" (Mumola, p. 7). Drug use is particularly serious among mothers—one in three mothers in state prison committed her crime to get drugs or money for drugs (Mumola, p. 8). It is important to note that an incarcerated parent's access to effective substance abuse treatment can vary a great deal.

Mental illness and poverty are also a concern. Among parents in state prison, 23% of mothers and 13% of fathers reported an indication of mental illness. More than half of the parent inmates in state prison reported income of less than $1,000 in the month prior to their arrest (Mumola, p. 9).

Care Arrangments of Children With
Parents in the U.S. State Prisons, 1997
Child's current caregiver (a)
Other parent of child
Grandparent of child
Other relatives
Foster home or agency
Friends, others (b)

(a) Detail may add up to more than 100% because some prisoners had multiple children living with multiple caregivers.
(b) Includes cases where parent reported that the child now lived alone.
Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: Incarcerated parents and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice [August 2000, NCJ 182335].

Beyond the Numbers

These statistics may give you a better sense of the parents behind bars, and perhaps even help you feel more prepared to work with them. But numbers can only take a person so far. They cannot describe the guilt and remorse felt by nearly all parents who must leave their children to serve time in prison. They cannot tell us what decisions a particular parent will make about his future, or his child's future. They cannot tell us if he will change for the better.

To find this out, someone must meet and build a relationship with each individual mother and father in prison. When there is a child in foster care involved, that person will be you. In this way, working with prisoners is no different from working with non-inmate parents: both require us to join with parents and families to overcome obstacles, and both offer the same reward for success—a secure future for children and their families.

Mumola, C. J. (2000). Bureau of Justice Statistics special report: Incarcerated parents and their children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice [August 2000, NCJ 182335].

N.C. Department of Correction. (2001). Report of prison population for 6/30/01, statewide report. Online <>

Wright, L. E. & Seymour, C. B. (2000). Working with children and families separated by incarceration: A handbook for child welfare agencies. Washington, DC: CWLA Press.