Kids With Parents In Jail Series: Can a parent be a parent behind bars?

What happens to a parent's parenting role when he/she goes to jail? How do things change, and is the parent equipped with the parental skills to make this long-distance relationship work?

According to a report from The Sentencing Project, 48 percent of incarcerated parents lived with their children before they were sent to jail, and a large majority of those parents are placed in prisons over one hundred miles from their kids. Regardless of why the parent was imprisoned or what type of parent he/she was before incarceration, the kids are now left in the lurch. True, they may live with a family member, but as we've discussed before, the chances of these kids committing a crime and ending up in jail are greatly increased. But, this does not have to be the case. Incarcerated parents can become better parents, and they can make a long distance relationship work if: they get help for their own issues; learn parenting skills; and, get help when they leave jail.

The statistics from the Sentencing Project regarding the problems parents have when they enter prison are staggering. 

  • 9 percent were homeless before their arrest
  • 20 percent were physically or sexually abused
  • 38 percent have not graduated high school or have their GED
  • 41 percent have infectious diseases such as hepatitis or tuberculosis
  • 57 percent have mental health issues
  • 67 percent have a history of drug or alcohol abuse
However, as bad as the numbers look, it's even more astonishing to discover that very few get the help they need. Yes, some prisons have programs that reach out to inmates to educate and provide treatment, but most do not. It takes money and legislation to take care of these issues, and quite frankly a vast majority of us don't really care about people in jail. But given the fact that children are our future, maybe it is time to change that. 

Besides taking care of the medical, mental, and addiction issues, inmates need to learn how to be good parents. Kids need parents who demonstrate their love in an open, honest, encouraging, and consistent manner. They have to be taught self-control, respect for themselves and for others, kindness, and how to become independent. If parents learn how to provide that type of environment for their kids, and motivate them to do their best regardless of the situation, then we all benefit. Some correctional institutions are realizing this, and are providing parenting classes for mothers and fathers. In Oregon, a program was developed to help provide incarcerated parents with the skills they needed to assume a parental role with their kids. A study to review the program found that one year after leaving prison, those who participated in the program were "95 percent" less likely to take part in criminal activity than those who did not take the parenting classes. Parents became closer to their kids and more responsible for their welfare. It's like that old parable--if you give a fish to someone, they have food for a day, but if you teach them how to fish, they have food for a lifetime. If we provide the resources for parents to learn the needed skills to raise their children, then we secure not only their futures, but our own.

Lastly, we need to make sure these parents get the help they need when they are released from jail so they can become the parents they need to be. They need a job, continued counseling if addiction is a problem, support from family and their community, and many times--a safe place to live. We can help by supporting programs in our area that make it easier for incarcerated parents to reenter life on the outside, and by seeing that our state recognizes that prisons and jails need programs to help prisoners become better parents. A parent can be a "parent" behind bars with the right support and education, and doesn't every child deserve parents that can be the best they can be?

Kids--all kids--are our future, and it's up to us to determine what that future will be.

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