The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 1, 2017

How prison and jail visits can build stronger families

Recent research found that more than 5 million American children have had a parent in prison or jail at some point and that black children and children living in poverty are disproportionately more likely to experience parental incarceration.

Having an incarcerated parent is a traumatic experience and is associated with a range of negative outcomes, such as increased antisocial behaviors and poor sleep and eating patterns. But well-designed parent-child visits in prisons and jails can minimize these harmful effects.

Based on our research, we identified the following recommendations for prison and jail officials interested in strengthening families and helping children of incarcerated parents through parent-child visits:

1. Create a child-friendly environment

Correctional environments—with loud noises, armed officers, and invasive search procedures—are stressful for children. Simple, low-cost modifications to institutional policies and visiting rooms can significantly reduce stress for children visiting their parents and encourage meaningful parent-child interaction. These include

  • painting the walls of visiting rooms with bright colors or murals;
  • providing age-appropriate books, games, and toys for children and parents to use during visits;
  • making search procedures less invasive; and
  • using nonuniformed staff to interact with children.

2. Offer contact visits

Contact visits allow parents and their children to physically interact, as opposed to only seeing and talking through a Plexiglass partition or video screen. For young children who do not understand why they can see their parent but can’t touch them, noncontact visits can be confusing and traumatic. Allowing physical interaction during a visit can assure children their parent is safe and healthy, which helps mitigate feelings of abandonment and anxiety caused by separation from their parent.

These activities also help children maintain, repair, or build relationships with their incarcerated parents. Strong parent-child bonds can have myriad benefits for children, including improved well-being, emotional adjustment, self-esteem, school performance, and feelings of attachment to their parents.

Contact visits also give incarcerated parents the opportunity to perform regular caregiving activities through play, conversation, or sharing a meal.

3. Provide support services alongside visits

Jail and prison officials should consider partnering with local community providers who can offer services to supplement and support parent-child visits, such as parenting classes, letter writing, telephone calls, and case management. These can provide children, parents, and other family members helpful tools for navigating the barriers created by a parent’s incarceration.

Working with parents before, during, and after visits could also improve outcomes for both parents and children. Before visits, providers can work with parents to ensure they are prepared to interact with their child in a positive way. During visits, staff can intervene with parents as needed—especially when navigating difficult conversations with their children—to maximize the benefits of the visit.

Staff may debrief with parents, children, and caregivers after a visit, allowing time to reflect on the conversations and experiences shared during the visit and plan for future visits. This helps reduce the anxiety children experience by being separated from their parents after a visit.

4. Engage with caregivers

Primary caregivers, such as coparents, grandparents, stepparents, relatives, or foster parents, play an integral role in parent-child visits. They are often responsible for bringing a child to the prison or jail for visits, accepting charges for phone calls, and being the child’s primary source of emotional and material support for the duration of the parent’s incarceration.

Because of this reality, children are more likely to visit their incarcerated parent when the incarcerated parent and caregiver have a strong and supportive relationship. Parent-child visits can also be incredibly stressful for the caregiver, especially if they don’t know the facility’s visiting policies, don’t have arrangements for the other children in their care, or have to travel long distances for the visit. These issues are even more stressful for families and caregivers from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Programs that provide caregiver supports such as transportation assistance or child care can help reduce barriers to visiting and make it easier for caregivers to return for visits.

We need to learn more

Even though we’ve identified ways to improve visiting, we need more research to understand what works best for families.

Corrections officials, program administrators, and researchers must improve data collection to accurately, consistently capture data on the children and parents involved in visiting programs. We need to know more about family relationships and dynamics before the parent’s incarceration, how often and how long children visit their parents, and whether these visits improve behavioral or social outcomes among parents and children.

Filling these research gaps will further help officials develop a visiting program that can improve safety in their facility, help parents prepare to return home, and mitigate the harmful effects of parental incarceration on children.

In this photo taken May 3, 2014, inmate Tiffany Dugan, left, greets her daughter, Arianne Skelton, 13, with a big hug at the Folsom Women's Facility in Folsom, California. Dugan had the chance to spend time with her daughter and son through a nonprofit program called Get on the Bus that arranges for children of inmates to visit their parents in California prions around Mother's and Father's days. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/AP.

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