The Psychosocial Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children and their Caregivers

Authored by: Sheridan Quarless Kingsberry , Sachin Karnik , Fountain Natalie M. , Kelly Wetzel

The Ashgate Research Companion to Black Sociology

Print publication date:  September  2015
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9781472456762
eBook ISBN: 9781315612775
Adobe ISBN: 9781317044024


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Parental incarceration in the United States is an intensifying social problem with serious implications for both the individual and society (Elbogen and Johnson 2009; Huebner and Gustafson 2007; Murray and Farrington 2005). According to Western and Pettit (2010), 54 percent of prison inmates are the parents of children under the age of 17. This includes more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers. Fully 2.7 million, or one in every 28, American children has a parent who is incarcerated (ibid.). Equally troubling are two particular trends that can have deleterious social consequences for our society in the future. First is the increasing rate of maternal incarceration and its impact on children. According to a 2010 revised U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report by Glaze and Maruschak, between 1991 and 2007 the number of children with a father in prison increased by 77 percent while the number of children with a mother in prison doubled by 131 percent. Mothers have traditionally been, and continue to be, the key socializing and protective factor in the lives of children. Therefore, when mothers are incarcerated their children are often left behind with limited protective structures. These children must be socialized by “other mothers” and may be vulnerable to risk factors including abuse and neglect. The second troubling trend is the disproportionate number of Black children with incarcerated parents. In 2010, one in nine Black children (11.4 percent), one in 28 Hispanic children (3.5 percent) and one in 57 White children (1.8 percent) had an incarcerated parent or parents (Western and Pettit 2010). Black children with incarcerated parents tend to be poor and live in urban, violence-prone communities (Murray and Farrington 2005; Phillips et al. 2006; Woldoff and Washington 2008; Davies et al. 2008). Blacks comprised approximately 12.4 percent of the U.S. population in 2006, yet they represented about 35 percent of the country’s state and federal prisoners (Darensbourg et al. 2010). When so many Black children are left without the protection, support and guidance of their parents—especially their mothers, who are responsible for providing their basic human needs (e.g., physiological, safety, belongingness and self-esteem)—they are less likely to achieve self-actualization and are more likely to grow into adults who make little or no positive contribution to their families, communities and the larger society (Maslow, as cited in Zastrow and Kirst-Ashman 2013).

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