Outside the Bars:

Impact of Family Member Incarceration on Women in the Community

Stephanie Miodus, M.A., M.Ed. & Audris Jimenez, M.A.


This workshop will address supporting women and girls in the community who have been impacted by the incarceration of a loved one. Participants will better understand the effects of familial incarceration on women and girls, and resources they can bring to communities, research, advocacy, and practice to support these women.

Learning Objectives

  • Identify at least 3 current resources in the community for women and girls with incarcerated family members and how to bring these resources to their respective communities and work.

  • Explain the impact of incarceration of a family member on women and the benefits of community support.

  • Generate ideas on how community-based organizations, community activists, researchers, or practitioners can engage and support women impacted by the incarceration of a family member.




  • Is a result of state-perpetrated violence.

  • Stems from cultural or historical trauma.

  • Viewed from the lens of a collective experience.

  • Involves compounding systems of oppression.

  • Calls for intervention on the systems-level.

(Heberle et al., 2020)


  • Forgotten victims so it is difficult to determine exact number of children with incarcerated parent (Arditti et al., 2003).

  • Federal prisoners who were the parent, step-parent, or guardian of a child younger than 20 went from 45% to 49% from 2018 to 2019.

  • Incarceration results in family separation. This means loss of a father figure for children, which means that someone that had a supervisory role in the child's life is no longer there to provide that support. The other parent or family member loses that support system in their lives. (Western and Wildeman, 2009).

  • Difficulty gaining that support back post release:

  • Some family members reported that their relationships with their children were affected by their family member's incarceration (Arditti et al., 2003).

    • 30.2% reported spending more time with their children prior to their family member's incarceration

  • Financial Strain

    • Not providing financial assistance

    • "Financial Burden"-cost of visitation to far away facilities, the cost of maintaining in touch via phone calls, and the cost of lawyers/attorneys (Western & Wildeman, 2009). Sending money to the incarcerated individual (Arditti et al., 2003).

    • Study on family members visiting incarcerated individuals during child visitation time (Arditti et al., 2003).

      • Study shows that there was a decline in the non-incarcerated family member having a job since their family member was incarcerated

        • 88.5% to 63.5%

      • More than half of the family members were receiving public assistance with 72% receiving assistance after their family member was incarcerated

      • Loss of child support

      • Financial struggle prior to familial incarceration but after the families dropped below the poverty line

  • Physical Health

    • In the same study they reported that they and their child's health had declined post familial incarceration.

    • Paternal incarceration showed high prevalence rates for heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and fair/poor health for adolescents

  • Mental Health

  • Oral History #1: "Confused is probably the best way I can explain how I felt when my stepbrother was arrested and incarcerated at Rikers. I was going into my senior year in high school. He's a year and a half older than me. It was the late 90s. I knew he was dealing for a while, but I really didn't know how deep in he was. I didn't see him again until he was released, both of us no longer teens. I was, and still am, angry for him. He couldn't go to his grandmother's funeral while he was locked up and his mother, my stepmother, never visited him. No one told me I could have at least written to him. I wish I would have."


  • Children and Adolescents

    • Affects socialization in children and self-worth (Western & Wildeman, 2009).

    • Study examining mental and physical health of adolescents whose parents had ever spent time in jail

      • Found more mental health related problems than physical health

      • Parental incarceration was found to be significant with the following mental health related problems: depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This was found to be higher with maternal incarceration, but was found to have higher prevalence when one parent was incarcerated than when neither parent (Lee et al., 2013)

  • Women

    • Mothers (Wildeman et al., 2012)

      • Mothers with a child with a recently incarcerated man had greater risk for major depression and life dissatisfaction

    • African American Women (Patterson et al., 2020)

      • Despite role in the incarcerated individual's life

      • Higher levels of psychological distress and depressive symptoms

      • Worse psychological adjustment

    • African American Mothers with Incarcerated Children (Green, et al 2006)

      • Recent incarceration of a son was associated with psychological distress

      • It is thought to be a Indirect association due to the presence of financial difficulties and greater burden of grand-parenting (caring for the children of their incarcerated children)

    • Oral History #2:

      • "Well, I felt sad of course because there wasn't anything I could do to help him out of the situation, and it felt weird visiting because of all of the eyes on us. Most of the correctional officers always had bad attitudes or were rude but there were 1-2 that were nice. I don't think I ever fully enjoyed our visits because I would always be counting down the very small amount of time we had, and I never wanted it to end so it would go very fast, and I would usually feel worse when leaving." ​

      • "It was very hard to bring [our baby daughter] with me because I had to do everything on my own and being in the facility gave me anxiety." ​

      • "Going to visit while pregnant became difficult after a while because I couldn't stand for long periods of time anymore or wait around for long, so I had to stop [going]."​

      • "The best moments were when I would get a phone call from him because I didn't have to physically be there, but I knew he was okay once I got the call."


  • Family members of the incarcerated individual can have difficulty maintaining contact while they are incarcerated. The system does not make it easy to facilitate visitation, especially with children. https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/50461/310882-Families-Left-Behind.PDF

    • Location of prisons and jails

    • Visitation procedures

    • Cost of transportation

  • There are also barriers for the incarcerated individual to find employment once they are released (Western & Wildeman, 2009).

  • Oral History #3:

    • "Lack of stability"​

    • "System took away family that was being built"​

    • "Difficulty doing things on my own and having to keep stability going while still providing connection to father and showing the kids that he matters"​

    • "Left on own to raise our children"​

    • "Hard seeing the kids only able to visit their father briefly and then taken away from him"

    • "Difficulty of kids asking where their father is and not knowing what to say"


  • Current focus of research mainly on families and women with children (not incarcerated)​

  • More research on women in general​

  • Sisters​

  • Step-siblings​

  • Mothers of the incarcerated individual​

  • Daughters

  • Further exploration on other family dynamics and the effects​

  • Same sex couples or families​

  • Trans women


  • Mentors and support from family and community members facilitates success and resilience (Luther, 2015)

  • Strengthening Incarcerated Families Program shows positive increases in (Miller et al., 2013):

    • Family-level functioning

    • Positive parenting

    • Caregiver depression symptoms


  • Book Example - An Inmate's Daughter by Jan Walker: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/882479.An_Inmate_s_Daughter

    • Jenna, the heroine of this story, is a typical teenage girl. She just moved to a new place and is trying to join a group at school. But what she isn’t supposed to reveal is that her father is in prison, as her mother is adamant that she keep it a secret. That becomes difficult when Jenna makes the decision to help another visitor at the prison where her father is incarcerated. This story shows how friendships can overcome personal hardships and societal discrimination, even among teenagers.

  • Bottomless Closet (NYC example): https://bottomlesscloset.org/

    • The Bottomless Closet experience is all about making women feel confident, prepared, and empowered to ace their job interviews, start that new job, and begin their journey to self-sufficiency.

  • Family Day (GA example): https://pap.georgia.gov/department-corrections-family-day

    • Family Day is part of the Department’s continuing effort to provide customer service to the families of offenders in the Georgia Department of Corrections system. Their goal is to provide families with a forum to ask questions and address concerns.

  • Girl Scouts Beyond Bars: https://www.girlscoutsww.org/en/events/girl_scouts_beyondbarsgsbb.html

    • Girl Scouts Beyond Bars (GSBB) is a unique program that gives girls age 5 through 17 the opportunity to build and maintain relationships with their incarcerated parents. The program also brings together girls whose families have been impacted by incarceration. Their mission is to decrease the effects of parent-child separation and rebuild bonds between parents and children. They offer programming for all girls whose lives have been touched by incarceration, including girls with currently incarcerated parents, girls adjusting to a parent’s community reentry, or girls affected by incarceration in other ways. The program is offered at no cost to participating families.

  • Mothers Offering Mutual Support (Ottawa example): https://www.momsottawa.com/

    • MOMS is a support group for moms, sisters and grandmothers of those who are incarcerated. The group has also taken on an advocacy role, joining forces with justice reform groups to draw attention to conditions inside the prison system.

  • Photo Patch Foundation: https://photopatch.org/

    • Photo Patch Foundation endeavors to demystify what children of incarcerated parents face and need, as there is often a disconnect between what people suspect and reality. The Photo Patch app can be used by our children to send letters, postcards, photos, and drawings to their incarcerated parent.

  • Sesame Street Incarceration Toolkit:


    • Little Children, Big Challenges provides much-needed resources for families with young children (ages 3 – 8) as they encounter the difficult changes and transitions that come with a parent's incarceration.

  • Video Visitation (NYC example): https://portal.311.nyc.gov/article/?kanumber=KA-02003

    • Families can connect with incarcerated loved ones through a free video visitation program available at participating City public libraries. Library Video Visitation connects a live video feed between library locations and NYC Department of Correction (DOC) facilities, allowing incarcerated New Yorkers to talk, read, and share stories together with their families.


Women, girls, and families are negatively impacted by familial incarceration compounded by systemic barriers. Community activists, researchers, practitioners, and community-based organizations engage and support women and girls impacted by the incarceration of a family member. Possible resource options include family support, maintaining relationships with family members who are incarcerated, female mentorship programs, job readiness and career placement, leadership and self-advocacy skills, and education and support surrounding the justice system and its process.


Arditti, J. A., Lambert‐Shute, J., & Joest, K. (2003). Saturday morning at the jail: Implications of incarceration for families and children. Family Relations, 52(3), 195-204. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3729.2003.00195.x

Geller, A., Garfinkel, I., & Western, B. (2011). Paternal incarceration and support for children in fragile families. Demography, 48(1), 25-47. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12029

Green, K. M., Ensminger, M. E., Robertson, J. A., & Juon, H-S., (2006). Impact of adult sons’ incarceration on African American mothers’ psychological distress. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(2), 430–441. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2006.00262.x

Goodwin, M. (2019). The thirteenth amendment: Modern slavery, capitalism, and mass incarceration. Cornell Law Review, 104(4), 899-990.

Heberle, A. E., Obus, E. A., & Gray, S. A. (2020). An intersectional perspective on the intergenerational transmission of trauma and state‐perpetrated violence. Journal of Social Issues. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12404

King, A. E. (1993). The impact of incarceration on African American families: Implications for practice. Families in Society, 74(3), 145-153. https://doi.org/10.1177/104438949307400302

Lee, R. D., Fang, X., & Luo, F. (2013). The impact of parental incarceration on the physical and mental health of young adults. Pediatrics, 131(4), e1188–e1195. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-0627

Luther, K. (2015). Examining social support among adult children of incarcerated parents. Family Relations, 64(4), 505-518. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12134

Lyons, T., Lurigio, A., Roque, L., & Rodriguez, P. (2013). Racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system for drug offenses: A state legislative response to the problem. Race and Justice, 3(1), 83–101. https://doi.org/10.1177/2153368712468861

Miller, A. L., Perryman, J., Markovitz, L., Franzen, S., Cochran, S., & Brown, S. (2013). Strengthening incarcerated families: Evaluating a pilot program for children of incarcerated parents and their caregivers. Family Relations, 62(4), 584-596. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12029

Patterson, E. J., Talbert, R. D., & Brown, T. N. (2020). Familial Incarceration, Social Role Combinations, and Mental Health Among African American Women. Journal of Marriage and Family, 83(1), 86–101. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12699

Turanovic, J. J., Rodriguez, N., & Pratt, T. C. (2012). The collateral consequences of incarceration revisited: A qualitative analysis of the effects on caregivers of children of incarcerated parents. Criminology, 50(4), 913-959. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-9125.2012.00283.x

Western, B., & Wildeman, C. (2009). The black family and mass incarceration. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 621(1), 221–242. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716208324850

Wildeman, C., Schnittker, J, & Turney, K. (2012). Despair by association? The mental health of mothers with children by recently incarcerated fathers. American Sociological Review, 77(2), 216–243. https://doi.org/10.1177/0003122411436234


For more information on this presentation, please contact Stephanie Miodus, M.A., M.Ed. at stephanie.miodus@temple.edu or Audris Jimenez, M.A. at audrisj15@gmail.com.