The high cost of parenting while incarcerated
Updated: Oct 19
The moment a parent comes in contact with the criminal legal system, their entire family is impacted. As a result of an arrest alone, a parent may lose access to housing, public assistance and a job that enabled them to support their family. Further, when someone is incarcerated, they may face significant costs to maintain relationships with their family and community, at the time when they are least able to pay.
One in 12 children in the United States have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. Having an incarcerated parent is associated with trauma, an increased likelihood of adverse educational outcomes and future involvement in the criminal legal system. It also often leads to financial hardship because the child lacks the monetary support previously provided by the parent before their incarceration. Black children are disproportionately impacted, facing almost twice the rate of parental incarceration when compared to white and Latinx parents.
The human impacts are obvious: intimate relationships are central to wellbeing and incarceration deliberately disrupts them. Maintaining relationships with a person’s family and community while incarcerated have benefits for all involved. Incarcerated individuals who maintain their family relationships experience improved health outcomes, lower rates of in-prison misconduct and substantially reduced recidivism.
Yet the actions required to maintain these relationships can come with significant economic setbacks. Costs for calls from prisons and jails are astronomical, and prisons and jailers routinely take away phone privileges as punishment for infractions. In-person visitation has particularly strong benefits for the incarcerated person’s health, likelihood of recidivism and behavior while incarcerated. However, in-person visitation also poses a financial burden on an incarcerated person’s family members. Prisons and jails are often located far from an incarcerated person's community; state prisons are, on average, 100 miles from the homes of those incarcerated, and those detained in federal prisons are held, on average, 500 miles from home. The financial burden of taking time off work and the cost of transportation can make visits unaffordable and impracticable for many families.
Even after a parent is released, their former incarceration can continue to burden them with substantial costs. To maintain their freedom, some jurisdictions require defendants to pay for their pretrial detention, probation supervision or other fines and fees. Incarceration of a parent often leads to civil family court involvement, since the state has an interest in the child’s care. To maintain parent-child relationships, family courts may impose conditions that require costly educational or treatment programs. These programs, in addition to simultaneously providing financial support for children, are largely unaffordable, especially since previously incarcerated persons often lose access to jobs, housing and social services. But failure to pay can mean losing parental rights permanently. Given the scope of mass incarceration in the United States, millions of parents are set up to fail.