Incarceration & Reentry

Today, more than two million children in the U.S. have a parent in prison and many more have experienced a parent in jail. The impact of a dad’s incarceration is felt by children, family, and you as the father.  If you or someone you love has been incarcerated, you know what this can look like. 

Research results show that when a parent is incarcerated, the lives of their children can be disrupted by separation from parents and siblings and being moved to different caregivers. Kids often struggle with increased stress, negative psychological effects, and education challenges when they have an incarcerated parent. Further, when a dad returns home after being incarcerated, the transition can pose emotional and financial challenges.

Focusing on the quality of a father-child bond is very important for the child’s well=being both throughout and after incarceration. Working to maintain positive relationships can help decrease the negative impacts of incarceration on children over time. The incarceration of a father is a unique experience that brings its own set of challenges to the father and his family. This page provides information and tips for those fathers and families dealing with incarceration or reentry.

Tips & Best Practices

  • Visiting an incarcerated parent is not only good for the child, but it is also good for the incarcerated parent. Studies have shown that visits from family reduce negative institutional behavior in inmates. This DadTalk Blog discusses the importance of setting visitation rules and preparing for the visit’s ending to ensure both sides feel comfortable and cared for. 
  • Kids may ask some tough questions about having an incarcerated parent. This post from Sesame Street discusses some of those tough questions and how you can assure your children that you care about them. 
  • It is important to consider the impact that incarceration can have on the rest of the family and the partner of the incarcerated parent. Communication is key. This article from the Prison Fellowship shows the importance of keeping the family and the incarcerated parent updated on everyone’s lives. This helps the incarcerated parent have an idea of what to expect when they return.
Spotlight On
Helping Incarcerated Parents Plan for Visits from Children

“When we talk about a child losing a parent to incarceration and we are interpreting the ACES [adverse childhood experiences] literature only through a child maltreatment lens, the meaning that gets made (intentionally or not) is that children of incarcerated parents are maltreated children, harmed by their parents and thus better off without them. If, however, the parents who are in prison or jail are seen as potential supports for these children, as buffers from the toxicity of the stress, then a different meaning is made of the loss. It becomes more profound and less dismissible.” – Ann Adalist-Estrin, Director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, in a 2015 webinar.


How do incarcerated parents explain where they are to their children?

What you share depends on your situation, your children’s ages and the length of time away. Many, including the Prisoner’s Family Helpline, recommend a truthful approach that describes the situation and emphasizes that your bond with your child will continue no matter what.

How do children react to a parent that is incarcerated?

Child reactions to parental incarceration vary by age and situation. Many experience stress, social stigma, or behavioral issues. According to Sesame Street in Communities, it may take special effort to start important conversations and answer kids’ questions. However, you can comfort children and guide them through difficult moments just by talking and letting them know they have love and support. 

How many children in the United States have an incarcerated parent?

An estimated 2.7 million children in America have at least one parent in prison or jail.

What resources are available to help with reentry?

The Reentry Services Directory from the National Reentry Resource Center provides local program information pertaining to reentry services.

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