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March 2013Vol. 14, No. 2Characteristics of Imprisoned Mothers and Fathers

The number of children with an incarcerated parent has climbed steadily in recent years, and these children often struggle with issues that include emotional and psychological disorders. As prevention interventions are developed to help this at-risk population, the characteristics of their incarcerated parents are important factors to consider. A recent study examined the differences between incarcerated mothers and fathers, including differences between their families, as well as implications for prevention interventions.

The authors note that the developers of child- and family-focused prevention programs face obstacles when designing content without knowing what is different about this population of families. The study included 359 incarcerated parents (54 percent of whom were women and 41 percent of whom were minorities) of children ages 3 to 11. Participants had been previously involved in a longitudinal study of a prison-based parent education program.

While the study discovered a number of differences between mothers and fathers, a variety of similarities also were found, including the following:

  • Participants were roughly the same age, about 32 years old.
  • Participants had approximately the same educational attainment; roughly 30 to 40 percent had neither graduated from high school nor earned the high school equivalency.
  • Participants had about the same number of children, an average of three, with a mean age ranging from 7 to 8.
  • Participants had similar family backgrounds; nearly 70 percent had one parent who had been arrested, and 60 to 70 percent had an incarcerated parent.

Significant differences also existed among participants:

  • Only 56 percent of mothers had been employed, compared to 76 percent of fathers.
  • Nearly half (45.6 percent) of the families with incarcerated mothers were living in poverty prior to incarceration, compared to one-third (31 percent) of families with an incarcerated father.
  • Inmate fathers were more likely to have longer criminal history backgrounds, including involvement with the juvenile justice system, than inmate mothers (70 percent compared to 47 percent).

The authors suggest the differences between incarcerated mothers and fathers are important to consider not only in the development of parenting programs, but also in the development of programs to help these parents reenter society.

"Characteristics of Incarcerated Fathers and Mothers: Implications for Preventive Interventions Targeting Children and Families," by Jean Kjellstrand, Jennifer Cearley, J. Mark Eddy, Dana Foney, and Charles Martinez Jr., Children and Youth Services Review, 34, is available for purchase here: