Cover: Programs for Incarcerated Parents

Programs for Incarcerated Parents

Preliminary Findings from a Pilot Survey

Published Feb 8, 2022

by Dionne Barnes-Proby, Celia J. Gomez, Monica Williams, Matt Strawn, Isabel Leamon

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Research Questions

  1. What prison-based programs exist for incarcerated parents?
  2. What are the key program components, how are programs implemented, and what are the programs' resources?
  3. To what extent do available programs support gender and cultural responsiveness?
  4. What are prison officials' assessments of the efficacy of the programs, and what are their perceptions of the strengths and challenges of implementation?

A significant number of incarcerated individuals in the United States are parents of minor children, resulting in approximately 2.7 million children having at least one parent in prison. Research suggests the incarceration of a parent can put a strain on the parent-child relationship and increase the risk for child delinquency, poor academic achievement, and social and emotional problems, which disproportionately affect children of color because of racial and ethnic disparities in incarceration rates. Many U.S. prisons offer programs to support incarcerated parents and their children; however, little is known about exactly what programs exist, how they are implemented, and the extent to which incarcerated parents participate.

To address these gaps, the authors conducted a pilot study to explore the current landscape of prison-based programs for incarcerated parents and understand the extent to which programs seek to mitigate the effects of policies and practices that disproportionately affect Black and Latinx families. The authors administered an online survey to administrators of five state prison facilities to gather information about program implementation; the extent to which programs are responsive to gender and/or culture; and perceptions of the programs' efficacy.

Information from this study will be used to prepare for the national administration of the survey. Ultimately, the authors aim to create a publicly available compendium that documents existing prison-based programs for incarcerated parents. This resource will guide corrections administrators and policymakers within the criminal justice system to make decisions about how best to use resources to support incarcerated parents and their children.

Key Findings

  • Most facilities offer at least one program.
  • Most programs appear to use nationally known — and, in some cases, researched-based — parenting interventions. Programs support parent well-being and nurture positive family relationships through parenting education; reading, writing, and literacy; and visitation supports.
  • Few parenting programs offer reentry supports, direct supports for children, mental health supports, education and training, or legal supports; however, these services are commonly offered to residents at some correctional facilities.
  • Most programs employ eligibility criteria to enroll parents, such as a child age requirement. Most administrators noted that programs are open to any caregivers.
  • Programs meet relatively frequently, and nearly half of the programs surveyed meet one or more times per week.
  • Besides program staff, classroom space and instructional or program-specific materials are the most-common resources used to support implementation.
  • The most common funding source is facility discretionary funding. Most administrators reported that programs are implemented by facility staff.
  • Administrators representing more than half of the programs reported that their programs supported gender and cultural responsiveness; however, strategies used for cultural responsivity were fairly limited.
  • Survey respondents had overwhelmingly positive perceptions of the programs at their facilities and agreed that programs were successfully meeting objectives.
  • The most commonly reported strength was the motivation of the participating parents. Other commonly reported strengths were effective resources, staff skills, and staff buy-in.
  • Notably, the most common challenge was identical to the most common strength: lack of parent motivation. Other commonly cited challenges were staff burnout and limited funds.


  • Facilities should consider adapting their program curricula to provide education that explicitly equips parents to address the unique social, emotional, and behavioral needs of their children, which might differ from those of children who are unaffected by incarceration.
  • Facilities should explore the potential value of integrating parenting programs with reentry services, education and training, mental health supports, and legal supports to better prepare parents to reenter the community and contribute to the care of their families.
  • Additional research should be conducted to explore the transferability of culturally responsive practices and sensitivity practices used in carceral settings, such as programs for incarcerated individuals and parents, given the limited set of culturally sensitive strategies implemented at the facilities in the sample and the scarcity of literature on developing culturally responsive programs for correctional populations.

Research conducted by

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. This research was conducted in the Justice Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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