Mass Incarceration and Children’s Toxic Stress

About 2.7 million children in America have at least one parent who is incarcerated. That’s about 1 of every 28 children today as compared with approximately 1 in 125 children 25 years ago. Across America, 11.4% of Black children, 3.5% of Hispanic children, and 1.8% of white children are included in the 2.7 million children living with at least one incarcerated parent.

Incarceration affects many more people than just those incarcerated. From families to communities, cycles of incarceration affect our entire society. Children and families are impacted in a major way, especially when a parent becomes incarcerated.

Families of incarcerated individuals are often disadvantaged financially long term. Parents  lose out on wages and paid work while they are physically incarcerated, and economic impacts after release can  follow them for the rest of their lives. There is a stigma around having an arrest, even without a charge or conviction, that often prevents formerly incarcerated people  from consistent employment, public assistance, and even housing opportunities.

In addition to the financial strain on families, mass incarceration also takes an emotional toll on children with incarcerated parents. Cycles of jail create uncertainty for children as they don’t know when their parent will return. The stress of having an incarcerated parent may show up in school children as lack of focus, inattention, or other problematic behaviors that may be misinterpreted as “acting out”.

Many of the impacts of incarceration on a family and community can be seen in the story of William Black. I came across the autobiographical piece about William Tank Black, father and husband. Black was the owner of Professional Management Inc., a sports management company that was worth more than $125 million, until one day his whole life changed when he was arrested and incarcerated. He tells the story of how being incarcerated impacted not only himself, but his family and the people he loved.

From financial instability, separation, loss of assets, and divorce, to fear, anger, loss of control, hopelessness, and desperation, Black was flooded with emotion when he realized just how much his mistake affected every single person in his life. I found myself empathizing with Black and his family as they endured his incarceration. This is the cycle of emotion and uncertainty that millions of children in our country are constantly going through. In an instant, this could even be my family.

Many organizations have ignited movements to end mass incarceration and/or to support children dealing with the stress of an incarcerated parent.

Sesame Street introduced a campaign, Little Children, Big Challengesto help children work through many difficult situations, including having an incarcerated loved one.

#Cut50 is working on making communities safer while reducing the number of people in our prisons and jails.

Has incarceration affected you? Are you already a part of the movement to end mass incarceration? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

Ki’ara Montgomery is a recent graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a bachelor’s degree in public relations, and minors in business and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies. While in school, she had opportunities with VCU AmeriCorps, Culture4MyKids, VCU School of Education, and the Richmond Raiders. She is currently working with the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance as Member and Donor Liaison.


 This article is part of the Action Alliance’s blog series on Virginia’s Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline.

The Trauma-to-Prison-Pipeline (aka “School-to-Prison-Pipeline”) fails young trauma survivors and young people experiencing high levels of toxic stress by responding in overly punitive ways to youth who exhibit normal reactions to trauma.
Youth of color and youth with disabilities are particularly targeted for disproportionately high levels of heavy-handed, punitive responses to vague and subjective infractions in school, such as “being disrespectful”, or “acting out”. Viewed from a trauma-informed lens, these same behaviors may signal youth who are suffering and struggling with ongoing effects of trauma.

The Action Alliance believes that everyone deserves racially equitable responses that are compassionate and trauma-informed, and which build individual and community assets.



Featured image source:

3 thoughts on “Mass Incarceration and Children’s Toxic Stress

  1. Ted Heck says:

    This is a great piece! You make an important point that, not only are 1 in 28 children today impacted by having a parent incarcerated, but whole communities are also impacted. I would push that even further by saying that anyone who thinks they aren’t somehow impacted in some way by this phenomenon is living in willful denial of the ways that they support the systems and societal factors that have created this terrible situation of mass incarceration in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s