The Impact of Incarceration on the Family

Mother comforting her daughter.

When a person goes to prison, he or she isn’t the only person whose life is profoundly changed by the experience. Incarceration has a ripple effect beyond the individual, on his or her family—and community.


According to the National Institute of Justice, family members of incarcerated individuals are often referred to as "hidden victims"—victims of the criminal justice system who are neither acknowledged nor given a platform to be heard. These hidden victims often receive little personal support in navigating life before, during, or after their loved one’s incarceration.


Imagine the stress and burden a suddenly single parent may face, including the emotional hardship of separation and the need to help children cope with a new normal. Consider the loss of income that can cause financial hardship, which might go on for years. And it’s not just about present circumstances, because incarceration can lead to a cycle that repeats for generations.


Through this lens, one can see that incarceration has life-changing circumstances for families and communities. Families need and deserve support during and after their loved one’s time in prison.


At The Way Back, we know that we aren’t just serving individual clients, but we are also serving their entire families and communities—through our work, we empower individuals, restore families, and create safer communities.


The effects of incarceration on the home front

Whether it's a person’s partner, parent, sibling, or child who is incarcerated, it takes a toll on the entire family. Practical, compassionate support for the families of incarcerated individuals goes a long way in sustaining a family during a difficult season, as well as countering the risk of recidivism.


For the family of an incarcerated individual, adjusting to their new normal can be difficult. According to one study, over half of parents in prison were the primary wage earners supporting their children. Release, though, does not mean a return to a financial “normal.” Upon reentry, there is no guarantee that the parent will be able to find a reliable job to support their children, as there are many obstacles to employment for those with prison records. Many employers are unwilling to hire formerly incarcerated individuals; even those that do may offer lower-paying positions.


Adjusting emotionally to a new normal can be very difficult, too. Families with a member in prison can struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and other mental health conditions, sometimes related to the stigma that can come with incarceration. Children may struggle with school, peer relationships, and mental health, with lifelong consequences.


Strong relationships are built upon sustained connection, which can be difficult enough to maintain under normal circumstances, let alone when a family member is in prison. Many families of incarcerated individuals may not live close enough to the prison to be able to visit their family members very often. Many prisons have strict visitation policies, and some people do not want their families to visit them over concerns about trauma. These factors can put an even greater strain on a familial relationship that may be on already rough ground.


The effects of incarceration on children

About 2.7 million children in the United States have a parent who is incarcerated. Many of these parents were previously employed and had lived with their families, meaning their absence leaves a large gap in the family structure and stability.


Children with incarcerated parents are 70 percent more likely to become incarcerated themselves. Intentional support for families can go a long way toward breaking this pattern, both during the family member’s time of incarceration and upon reentry into their life and society.


Jessica De la Mora, whose father was in and out of incarceration since 1993, describes how the experience felt from her perspective.


“Every visit, I went home crying because I knew I wasn’t going home with my dad,” Jessica says. “I wasn’t understanding why. I was very young. It hurt a lot and I remember a few times where I was actually crying on the way over there….I felt like I was trapped in a box when it came to the subject of my father.”


Understanding the hardships faced by families (especially children) of incarcerated individuals is vital to confronting the root causes and interrupting the vicious cycle of recidivism that can devastate a family.


Parental incarceration activist and filmmaker Akiya McKnight commented on the assumptions many people make regarding the children of incarcerated individuals. “They’re not thinking that this kid is also still a child that needs love and doesn’t know how to respond to the trauma that they’re going through.”


Healing a family

Reentry into society includes reentry into a family. The family members of a formerly incarcerated individual have had to adjust to life without their loved one; now they all have to build a new future and face the challenges that come with reentry together.


At The Way Back, we believe that incarceration doesn’t define a life, but a second chance can—and this second chance includes supporting the families of those who have been incarcerated. It is our mission to restore hope and pave the way for opportunities for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families to make their tomorrow brighter than yesterday.


Consider supporting The Way Back with a donation. Even a small, monthly recurring gift helps. In addition, this month marks the 50th anniversary of our founding. Since 1973, The Way Back has been making a difference for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. Support us this month as part of our $50 for 50 years campaign.