It’s not “cupcakes and lollipops” for most children who visit a parent in prison.
Two-thirds of those children report having negative experiences such as fear, anger, anxiety, and related reactions, according to a study funded by the National Institute of Justice by Melinda Tasca, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at Sam Houston State University.
The study, “‘It’s Not All Cupcakes and Lollipops:’ An Investigation of the Predictors and Effects of Prison Visitation for Children during Maternal and Paternal Incarceration,” found that 65 percent of children reacted negatively to prison visitation, resulting in crying, emotional outbursts, depressive symptoms, poor attitudes, acting out, and developmental regression, according to interviews with caregivers of 40 children who have a parent incarcerated in the Arizona Department of Corrections.
One-third of children were reported to have had a positive experience, which included excitement and improved attitudes and behaviors.
“In-prison visitation may be considered a ‘reset’ button for prisoners, caregivers, and children as they attempt to settle the past, discuss the present and plan for the future,” Tasca said. “At the same time, however, prison visitation can be an arduous undertaking emotionally, physically, and economically for children and caregivers.”
Two primary factors shaped how children responded to visits with an incarcerated mother or father: the institutional environment and the parent-child relationship.
“The punitive nature of corrections often extends to the family, including intrusive search procedures, poor treatment by staff and visiting rooms not conducive to family interactions,” Tasca said. “Levels of parental attachment also were in issue, with some highly strained because of limited prior involvement and criminal activities.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013 there were about two million children with an incarcerated parent, predominately from poor, minority families. About one-quarter to two-thirds of children visit a parent in prison.
In addition to examining the impact of prison visitation on children, the study also examined factors associated with the likelihood of parent-child prison visitation. For incarcerated mothers, children were accompanied most frequently by a grandmother; for incarcerated fathers, it was the child’s mother who often escorted the child to prison.
Most families of prisoners are fiscally and emotionally overburdened, the study found. More than half of the caretakers of the children of imprisoned parents were on public assistance and lived more than 100 miles from the facility where prisoners were housed. Many of the inmates suffered from mental health or substance abuse problems, and many families faced economic hardships or family instability.
“A major highlight of this study is the investment many overly burdened mother and grandmother caregivers make into prisoners through their facilitation of parent-child prison visits and the largely negative impacts on children that results from such efforts,” according to a press release from the National Institute of Justice. “In light of strained familial relationships and in the absence of treatment resources, the likelihood that the investment of time, energy, and money that prison visitation requires will pay off is slim.”
Tasca’s study can help the criminal justice system identify family members most embedded in prisoners’ lives to better inform reentry processes. It also underscores the need for family-centric interventions. In addition, the author calls for more child-friendly visitation areas, where inmates and their children can better interact.
The study was Tasca’s dissertation, which was funded under the National Institute of Justice Graduate Research Fellowship Program. It is available through NIJ atncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/248650.pdf.
Tasca completed her doctorate from Arizona State University in the spring of 2014 and joined the faculty in the SHSU Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology that fall.