Children Suffer When Parents Are Imprisoned

Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
May 11, 2023

Imprisoning parents hurts children. It increases children’s likelihood of special education placement, being held back in school, or dropping out entirely. It also increases their likelihood of homelessness, developing substance use disorders, and becoming involved in the criminal legal system themselves. Yet, the United States continues to unnecessarily separate millions of children from their parents through incarceration—even though better options exist.

“Those kids are missing and lacking so much,” said Dunasha Payne. Her daughter was two years old when Payne went to prison, and she spent seven years passing through barbed wire gates for visits that were always too short. “When she would see me, it would be all tears, all the time. She had so much pent-up emotion that she couldn’t express…. Not only is their family member incarcerated; the family is incarcerated too.”

The United States spends a staggering $80 billion a year incarcerating people, often in dehumanizing conditions. This does not make us safer and, in fact, is sowing seeds of harm into future generations. To promote true public health and safety, we need to free more people and address the root causes of criminal legal system contact, instead of reacting to crime after it happens. Rather than falling back on the status quo, lawmakers have the power to lower jail and prison populations by directing resources into schooling, health care, housing, jobs programs, and other alternatives to incarceration that will ultimately help communities heal and thrive. Services like community-based housing programs that provide mental health services and restorative justice programs repair rather than punish.

Mass imprisonment of mothers is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1970, nearly 75 percent of counties in the United States held not a single woman in jail. But by 2014, the number of women in jail had increased 14-fold. More than half of the women incarcerated in state and federal prison are mothers to minor children. Data is limited on the numbers of mothers in U.S. jails who have minor children, but studies suggest that more than 75 percent of jailed women in the United States have children under 18. And on top of that, an estimated 55,000 pregnant people are admitted into jails in the United States each year.

My name is Dunasha: I was an incarcerated mother
"When she would see me, it would be all tears, all the time. She had so much pent-up emotion that she couldn't express." Families belong together. Yet this #MothersDay and every day, mass incarceration unnecessarily separates millions of children from their parents, like Dunasha Payne and her daughter who were separated for 7 years while Dunasha was incarcerated.
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Most people in jail have not even been convicted of a crime, they simply can’t afford to buy their freedom and pay bail. And unaffordable bail can be particularly catastrophic for single parents without family support, whose children may be forced to enter foster care if their parent is faced with a lengthy pretrial detention. It also puts pressure on parents to plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit just so they can get back to their families quicker.

Women in the criminal legal system disproportionately are people of color, survivors of trauma, experience poverty, and have high rates of physical and mental illness and substance use. In many cases, women who could benefit from assistance—due to poverty, mental health, or substance use—end up behind bars instead of being able to access the resources they need.

An estimated 2.7 million children have a parent who is incarcerated, with children of color and children experiencing poverty being more likely to have parents targeted for criminalization, harsher charges, and longer sentences. Children’s relationships with incarcerated parents especially suffered during the pandemic, when visitation was suspended—many children were unable to see or hug their parents for a year or more.

While Payne was separated from her daughter, she got a journal and wrote in it every day. “I would tell her that I was thinking about her all the time,” she said. “You can leave spots in the book for the child to draw in. Even if you don’t get to see your child, you can definitely write to your child. It helped me a great deal, journaling to [my daughter].”

Dunasha Payne.

Each year, as Mother’s Day approaches, people raise money to bail out mothers who can’t afford to buy their freedom and pay for buses to bring children to visit their mothers in faraway prisons. Tears come to Payne’s eyes when she thinks of the mothers who will be spending this Mother’s Day behind bars, and the children who won’t get to see their mothers. “It is so sad in prison around this time,” she said. “Around all holidays, but Mother’s Day especially.”

Now that she’s home, Payne says that she and her daughter are rebuilding their relationship day by day. She hopes that communities will find ways to support parents and children who are separated by incarceration and that, in the future, fewer families will suffer the separation that hers did.

“I want people to show grace for folks who are incarcerated and for folks who are coming home and trying to transition,” she said. “Have some patience and give as much support as you can. You can write someone or send a card or do work in the community to help people who are coming home. Just be supportive the best way you can.”

It’s clear that the unjust system of mass incarceration has inflicted unnecessary harm on Payne, her daughter, and countless other families like theirs—and it needs to be dismantled, once and for all. Proactive investments in schooling, jobs, heath care, and housing are what families and communities actually need in order to stay safe. It’s time we make them.