We know that family contact can help incarcerated people cope with being locked up and reduce their chances of returning to prison. Yet self-reported data from people in state prisons show just how difficult it is to communicate with loved ones, provide financial support even when legally obligated, and make decisions with and about their families. Millions of families and minor children throughout the country are punished emotionally, economically, and otherwise by a loved one’s incarceration.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Survey of Prison Inmates data provide the deepest nationwide look yet at the challenges and impossibilities of parenting from prison. Conducted in 2016 but released as a limited public dataset in late 2020, the Survey asked people housed in state prisons about a wide range of topics, from their upbringing and childhood, to the offense that led to incarceration, to their life in prison. Here, we offer data and analysis revealing the ways in which prisons fail entire families — and society more broadly — by separating millions of children from their parents, and by enforcing harmful policies that perpetuate cycles of poverty and disadvantage.

Nearly half (47%) of the approximately 1.25 million people in state prison are parents of minor children, and about 1 in 5 (19%) of those children is age 4 or younger. Altogether, parents in state prison reported roughly 1.25 million minor children, meaning the number of people in state prison almost exactly mirrors the number of impacted minor children. Research indicates that children of incarcerated parents face formidable cognitive and health-related challenges throughout their development.

Read the full article about how mass incarceration punishes families by Leah Wang at Prison Policy Initiative.