Visiting an incarcerated parent can be difficult and confusing for children, but research suggests that contact between prisoners and their children benefits both, reducing the chance of parents returning to prison and improving the emotional life of children. Because increasing numbers of incarcerated parents are held at prohibitive distances from their children, too many children are denied the opportunity for contact with their parents. In 1978, only eight percent of women prisoners had never received a visit from their children. By 1999, 54 percent had not received a single visit.

“When it’s hard times, you stick together.”

Malcolm was four years old when his mother was arrested. He lived with his grandmother until his mother was paroled nine years later.


I really don’t remember the first couple years after my mother went to prison, but I remember that it was a long, long time that I didn’t see my mom. Then, maybe after the first couple years, we started seeing her once every month or two. My mom started finding people to drop us off and give us rides. Then it came to like twice a month.


We made the most of each visit that we had. My mom was very special about trying to give time to each little child. Like for my sister, she would sit there and braid her hair while she had her little private time to talk to her. She would try to make the three-hour visits enriching.


I remember she used to teach me karate. I remember her pushing me on a swing. Me showing her my muscles, even though I didn’t have any. Just me being relaxed and having fun with my mother is what I remember most. And me really realizing how much I missed her towards the end of the visit, when someone would tell us we would have to say goodbye.


I couldn’t even begin to express to you in words how fulfilling that was to my soul to give my mother a hug. For her to give me a kiss. For me to sit in her lap. If I hadn't been able to do that, I would have felt very empty then, as a child, and maybe as well now.


Prisoners who have regular visits are SIX times less likely to reenter prison than those who have none.

I wanted her to always be in my presence—for me to always have contact with my mother. That’s what I always wanted. Me as a child, and me still, growing up.


Family is very important in my life. And I try always to indulge myself in that, after having that stripped away from me.


More than 60 percent of parents in prison are held more than 100 miles from home.

Because I didn’t have that permanent separation—I always had contact in some form, whether it was writing or phone calls or visits, with my mother—I understand the strength of a family. When it’s hard times, you stick together. And that was just a hard time.


  • Provide access to visiting rooms that are child-centered, non-intimidating and conducive to bonding.
    Visiting a jail or prison is necessarily challenging for a child, but much can be done to reduce fear and anxiety and improve the quality of the experience. “Window visits,” in which visitors are separated from prisoners by glass and converse by telephone, are not appropriate for small children; contact visits should be offered except when security concerns or the nature of an offense preclude them. In facilities such as county jails where window visits are the norm, separate accommodations should be made for children. In facilities where contact visits already take place, visiting rooms should be designed with children’s needs in mind, or separate accommodations should be made for prisoners with children. Opportunities for extended contact—onsite weekend visits, summer camps, weekend furloughs—should be supported and extended.


  • Consider proximity to family when siting prisons and assigning prisoners.
    Many of the prisons built in recent decades have been sited in rural counties far from the urban centers where most prisoners come from, and where most of their children remain. In the long run, this practice should be reconsidered. In the meantime, proximity to family should be a priority when decisions are made about prison assignments and transfers.


  • Encourage child welfare departments to facilitate contact. 
    Children in foster care—who must depend on over-extended social workers or foster parents to arrange and accompany them to visits—often have a particularly hard time gaining access to their parents. At the same time, social services departments have a legal mandate to make “reasonable efforts” to help families reunify—and regular contact is generally a prerequisite for reunification. 

    One option is to establish units within child welfare departments dedicated to serving children with incarcerated parents. Workers in these units would be trained to deal with prison visitation and other issues specific to this population, and could also establish long-term relationships with prison authorities in order to facilitate contact.



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