October 2003 // Volume 41 // Number 5 // Ideas at Work // 5IAW4

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Parenting from Prison: What Can Extension Educators Do?

The number of children affected by parental incarceration has increased drastically in the last decade. Many incarcerated parents want to be good parents, and, while in prison, they can improve on their parenting skills and maintain or strengthen their relationships with their children. Extension parent educators can teach parenting skills and present ideas for staying connected while in prison. Since 1997, 139 mothers and 68 fathers have taken the Parenting From Prison class. Activities used in the class are described as well as considerations for modifying existing parenting curricula to fit the needs of incarcerated parents.

Jackie L. Reilly
Youth Development Specialist
University of Nevada Cooperative Extension
Reno, Nevada
Internet Address: reillyj@unce.unr.edu


Incarcerated parents face many difficulties maintaining contact with their children. Parenting From Prison, a University of Nevada Cooperative Extension program, offers incarcerated parents the opportunity to develop parenting skills and learn ways to maintain their relationships with their children.


In 1999, there were 721,500 parents of 1,498,800 minors in State and Federal prisons (Bloom, 1993; Mumola, 2000) in the United States. The number of children with incarcerated parents grew by 500,000 from 1991 to 1999 (Mumola, 2000). Eighty percent of the children were 10 years old or younger (Mumola, 2000). Many incarcerated parents reunite with their children upon release (Mumola, 2000).

Fritsch and Burkhead (1981) found children of incarcerated mothers and fathers exhibited problematic behavior, including withdrawal, a drop in school-work, use of drugs or alcohol, school truancy, and hostile behavior, following parental incarceration. Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be incarcerated than children whose parents were never incarcerated (Bloom, 1993). Developing new parenting skills may help break this cycle.


When developing parenting programs for incarcerated parents, there are circumstances to consider.


Most incarcerated parents were poor, with incomes below the poverty line, prior to incarceration; 70% of mothers and 53% of fathers earned less than $12,000 annually (Mumola, 2000).


Many incarcerated parents have little education. Forty-two percent to 70% have no high school diploma or equivalent prior to incarceration (Banauch, 1985; Mumola, 2000; Snell, 1994).

Living Arrangements

Many incarcerated mothers, 50% in federal prisons and 73% in state prisons, lived with their children prior to incarceration (Banauch, 1985; Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Mumola, 2000). Fewer incarcerated fathers, 36% to 49%, lived with their children prior to incarceration (Greenfeld & Snell, 1999; Martin, 2001; Mumola, 2000). Separation from parents can be difficult, and negative circumstances may cause it to be more traumatic.

Family Contact

Incarcerated parents may have little or no contact with their children due to numerous barriers (Bloom, 1993; Blinn, 1997). Most incarcerated parents (over 60%) are in prison more than 100 miles from their most recent residence (Bloom, 1993; Mumola, 2000). Parents may not want their children to see them in prison or be exposed to the prison environment (Baunach, 1985; Bloom, 1993; Coll, Surrey, Buccio-Notaro, & Molla, 1998). Children may be in foster care or with family members who believe incarcerated parents are bad parents (Blinn, 1997; Bloom, 1993; Coll, Surrey, Buccio-Notaro, & Molla, 1998).


Incarcerated parents can be a difficult and rewarding audience. There may be issues affecting parenting, such as addictions or mental illness. Extension professionals need to educate themselves about this audience before working with them. They may want to get training from prison personnel or partner with prison staff to present classes.

Curricula Activities

Parenting From Prison participants ask how to be a better parent. Classes focus on building positive relationships with children, age-appropriate expectations, guidance, and communication. Following are ways for parents to connect with their children.

  • Make-a-hug: Parents trace their hand and arm on an 11" x 17" paper. Parents cut out the traced arms and glue them together. Parents can write a special message on the hug and mail it to their child. The paper hug is a tangible way to show their love. For prison settings that do not allow scissors, the parent educator may need to pre-cut the traced arms.

  • Bookmarks: In class we talk about the importance of reading with children. A bookmark is one way to remind children to read and let children know the parent values reading. Parents decorate a strip of 3" by 8" paper. We provide stencils, stickers, markers, and colored pencils. We laminate the bookmarks.

  • Place mats: Parents put a positive message and pictures on an 11" x 17" colored paper. We laminate the place mat so that it can be cleaned with a damp cloth.

  • Name Poem: Parents can write a poem about their child using the letters of their child's name. For example: "I love you Derek, because you are Delightful, Energetic, Rambunctious, Entertaining and Knowledgeable". The poem could be put on a card or poster for the child.

Additional ideas can be found in a fact sheet available from our Web site at <http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/child.htm>. Scroll to "Children, Youth and Families: Parenting," and click on Parenting From Prison.


Participants rate the class using a scale of 1 to5 (1 being "not very useful" to 5 being "very useful). Analyses indicated participants felt the class was very helpful, 97% of fathers (N=33) and 95% of mothers (N=22) rated the class as very useful. Parents were asked to list four things that they learned in class; 72% (N=105) were able to list three or more things that they had learned in the class. The majority of participants indicated the best thing about class was time to talk and listen, ideas for parenting from prison, and making things for their children.

Incarcerated parents have time to think about their children and choices they have made (Baunach, 1985; Boudouris, 1996). Many want to learn to be better parents and how to deal with the impact of incarceration on their children (Carp & Schade, 1993; Coll et al., 1998). Extension professionals are uniquely posed to offer parenting classes to this growing population. Modifications of our current, research-based parenting curricula can provide the basis for helping incarcerated parents learn new parenting skills. Learning parenting skills can help parents and their children succeed.


Baunach, P. J. (1985). Mothers in prison. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, Inc.

Blinn, C. L. (Ed.) (1997). Maternal ties: A selection of programs for women offenders. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.

Bloom, B. (1993). Incarcerated mothers and their children: Maintaining family ties. In Female offenders: Meeting needs of a neglected population. Lanham, MD. American Correctional Association. pp.60-68.

Boudouris, J. (1996). Parents in prison: Addressing the needs of families. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.

Carp, S. V., & Schade, L. S. (1993). Tailoring facility programming to suit female offender needs. In Female offenders: Meeting needs of a neglected population. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.

Coll, C. G., Surrey, J. L., Buccio-Notaro, P., & Molla, B. (1998). Incarcerated mothers: Crimes and punishments. (pp. 255-274).In Coll, C. G.; Surrey, J. L. & Weingarten, K. (Eds.) Mothering against the odds: Diverse voices of contemporary mothers. NY: The Guilford Press.

Fritsch. T. A., & Burkhead, J. D. (1981). Behavioral reactions of children to parental absence due to imprisonment. Family Relations, 30, 83-88.

Greenfeld, L., & Snell, T. C. (1999). Women offenders. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Martin, J. S. (2001). Inside looking out: Jailed fathers' perceptions about separation from their children. NY: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.

Mumola, C. J. (August, 2000). Incarcerated parents and their children. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Snell, T. L. (1994). Women in prison. Bureau of Justice Statistics.