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“No One Has Ever Asked Me if I’m a Dad.”: Supporting Families in the Context of Incarceration Through Community-University-Corrections Partnerships

Rebecca Shlafer, Lauren A. Hindt, and Jennifer B. Saunders

Abstract

A growing body of evidence indicates that mass incarceration has devastating consequences for children, families, and communities. Estimates from the National Survey of Children’s Health indicate that more than 5 million children have had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison. Yet, most states do not systematically collect information about an incarcerated person’s parenting status. This article describes two studies one about parents in Minnesota prisons and another about parents in Minnesota jails—and the challenges and opportunities that developed from these studies. The authors discuss building community-university-corrections partnerships to collect essential data to inform policy and practice in Minnesota.

The United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but nearly 25% of the world’s incarcerated people (Walmsley, 2018). A growing body of evidence indicates that mass incarceration has devastating consequences for children, families, and communities (Eddy & Poehlmann-Tynan, 2019). Yet, most states do not systematically collect information about an incarcerated person’s parenting status (Maruschak, Glaze, & Mumola, 2010). Thus, limited information is known about how many people in jails or prisons are parents with minor children (less than 18 years old) or how many children are impacted. In 2007—the most recent year for which national estimates are available—it was estimated that 1.75 million children had a parent currently incarcerated in a state or federal prison (Maruschak et al., 2010). More recent estimates from the National Survey of Children’s Health indicated that more than 5 million children—and 5% of children younger than 6 years old—have had a parent who lived with them go to jail or prison (Murphey & Cooper, 2015).

The distinction between jails and prisons is an important one in terms of the potential impacts on the children and the family system. Jails are locally operated correctional facilities that confine persons before or after adjudication (the judicial decision or sentence). Sentences to jail (typically misdemeanors) are usually 1 year or less, whereas sentences to prison (typically felonies) are generally more than 1 year. Compared to prisons, jails have substantially higher turnover, typically provide fewer programs and services, and often have limited opportunities for contact visitation. These differences have important implications for parents. Thus, knowing how many parents are incarcerated in both jails and prisons is critically important for informing practice and policy.

Not knowing how many parents are incarcerated—or how many children are impacted—is a problem for many reasons. First, not having adequate information about how many parents are in states’ prisons and jails means administrators and policymakers have no way of knowing whether there are enough resources to meet demands. Do facilities offer enough visiting times—and at the right times—to accommodate visits from children and families? Do facilities have enough parenting classes to reach all of the parents who would want to participate? Do facilities have enough staff who are trained to address the unique needs of parents?

More important, though, failing to ask about whether or not someone is a parent often sends a clear message to people who are incarcerated that this part of their identity is not important. The conclusion might be that prisons and jails do not ask about parenting status because they do not care or recognize the importance (see Box 1).

This article describes two studies—one about parents in Minnesota prisons and another about parents in Minnesota jails—and the challenges and opportunities that developed from these two statewide studies.

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