Children with an Incarcerated Family Member at Increased Risk for Lower Health Quality in Adulthood

A new study out of Brown University, which was based on data gathered from more than 81,000 adults who responded to the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, shows that people who grew up in a household where a family member was incarcerated have an 18 percent greater risk of experiencing poor health quality than adults who did not have a family member sent to prison. These findings are even more striking when one considers that people with children account for more than half of the U.S. prison population today. This outcome held consistent even when the researchers controlled for other Adverse Childhood Experiences, such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse, as well as exposure to domestic violence, substance abuse, a mentally ill household member, and parental separation or divorce.

In response to the newly released study, Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at The Sentencing Project, stated, “Even though we’re using incarceration to stop societal disorder, we’re actually exacerbating the problem in some communities. There’s emotional instability during a parent’s absence. Children with incarcerated parents can’t turn to peers to talk about their problems because of the general stigma. This problem disproportionately impacts children of color because of the uneven enforcement of drug laws.”

Although a strong parent-child relationship has been shown to strengthen children’s physical and emotional well-being, children with incarcerated parents have few opportunities (if any) to openly communicate with their parents due to factors such as distances between correctional facilities and home that average more than 100 miles, as well as limits on calls or letters that prisoners can receive. Some correctional facilities have made more of an effort to allow children of incarcerated individuals the chance to bond with their parents. For example, Belmont Correctional Institution in eastern Ohio, a medium security facility, holds events twice each year called “Fathers Matter,” which allows children and incarcerated dads to reunite for an afternoon of fun (i.e., card games, play, and conversations). A California-based organization called Get on the Bus similarly transports young children to Folsom State Prison where their parents are incarcerated so that they can attend visiting hours around holidays like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day.

However, even with these innovative and notable programs, it is clear that more resources and efforts must be dedicated to ensure a healthy and prosperous future for the overwhelming numbers of children who have a parent who is incarcerated.

Click here to see the Brown University news release about their recently completed study and its findings.