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  • Kirsten Rowe

Visitation and protecting rights of incarcerated parents

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, approximately 47% of individuals incarcerated are parents of minors, with 19% of those children being 4 years-old or under. The Prison Policy Initiative has shared that two-thirds of parents in prison report that they have not had visits with their children. This may be due to prison policies, both parents not wanting the child to visit or the incarcerated parent being detained far from home. While there are some significant barriers to visitation, there are numerous benefits to allowing incarcerated parents to have visitation with their minor children.


A major benefit of family contact is that the parent and the child will have stronger bonds after the parent completes their sentence. A 2020 study indicates that there is an increase in relationship quality for children and their incarcerated parents when they have in-person visitation. These stronger relationships are beneficial in ensuring that the parent can have a strong familial connection to the minor child once they complete their sentence. Another advantage of family contact is the weakening of the stigma surrounding incarcerated parents, particularly incarcerated fathers. For instance, in our society, there is a stereotype that men of color are often uninvolved in the lives of their children. However, this belief ignores the reality of parental incarceration; research indicates that one in nine Black children have a parent in prison. While this belief is more common in communities of color, a similar belief exists in other racial groups as well, albeit to a lesser degree. Children visiting with their incarcerated parents may lessen the stereotypes that these populations face.


Having in-person visitation also provides the child with stronger social relationships and decreased feelings of anxiety or stress. Further, individuals who receive visitation during their sentence often exhibit better behavior in prison, resulting in less time spent in prison. Studies have also shown that visitation has a positive influence in reducing recidivism rates after release. By incentivizing visitation with their minor child, it will likely improve the behaviors and morale of incarcerated individuals. As a result of improved behavior and morale, and the stronger bonds created with their families’;;,j5, these visits could potentially help address the concern of mass incarceration within the United States.


Despite these benefits, incarcerated parents face various challenges to visitation that are often outside of their control. One of the more influential barriers involves the place of incarceration itself. Most prisons have policies regarding the attire of visitors and the format of the visit and who can visit, all of which can negatively impact the experience of children who are visiting a parent. Further, the atmosphere of the prison can make children—especially younger children—feel intimidated and uncomfortable. Additionally, where the child resides provides a major barrier, particularly if they are placed in foster care during the parent’s incarceration. According to a study, foster care parents are less inclined to facilitate visitation between a child and an incarcerated parent, which can often lead to other issues, such as potentially having the incarcerated parent’s rights terminated.


The incarceration of parents is a form of parental separation that has negative consequences for children. These effects typically include exhibiting antisocial behavior, declining in academic performances and eventually involvement in the juvenile or criminal legal system. Research indicates these manifestations come from the isolation that a child experiences while a caregiver is incarcerated, as well as the disruption it causes to the child’s early brain development. These negative impacts can be countered by the many benefits that visitation provides.


Within the realm of legal practice, attorneys should ask the client basic questions, such as if they have any minor children that they have regular contact with and should learn about the family dynamics within the home to better inform their advocacy strategies. This information will help practitioners in sentencing phases by strengthening advocacy for more equitable facilities for parents. When attorneys know about their client’s family dynamics, the attorney is better equipped to help minimize the trauma children experience when visiting incarcerated parents. During their representation, it is also beneficial for the attorney to speak with family members and inform them of the importance of child and parent visitation. Lastly, criminal attorneys should connect parents with family law professionals when necessary to ensure they can maintain or gain access to their minor children during their incarceration.


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