Staying Connected to an Incarcerated Parent

Staying Connected to an Incarcerated Parent

Contact visitation vs. non-contact visitation

More than two million children have a parent who is incarcerated and millions more have the experience of their parent being arrested or detained. When a parent goes to jail (or prison) the child is also punished. Parental separation due to incarceration profoundly impacts a children’s psychological, developmental, and financial well-being. However, some family members and professionals (lawyers, judges, social workers and psychologists) question whether children should have contact with incarcerated parents and express concerns about how and when contact occurs, who regulates contact, what types of contact are feasible and desirable, and the effects of contact (or lack thereof) on children. Conversely, there are concerns about what happens when children have no contact with their incarcerated parents. Given this tension, it is necessary to consider the ways that contact between children and their incarcerated parents can be beneficial and ways for this to occur. Some of the best ways to maintain this connection include visitation (contact and no contact), telephone, video-conferencing, letter writing, and pictures.

Contact Visitation. One of the best ways for children to stay connected to their parents while they are incarcerated is with regular visitation. Some jails and/or prisons allow contact visitation, which has been deemed the most effective. Contact visitation suggests that the child essentially has the ability to touch their parent. Research shows that consistent and ongoing parent-child contact is necessary for a child to successfully bond with a parent and has positive implications for forging positive relationships later in life. Contact visitation also helps normalize the circumstances between parent and child. This type of visitation is recommended in most cases unless contact with parents is not determined to be in the child’s best interest by the court. Coached or supported visits are also encouraged.

No-Contact Visitation. When contact visitation is not allowed in the jail or prison, the child (and caregiver depending on the child’s age) will be able to visit the parent in a room with a glass divider. This way the child and their parent can see each other but they cannot physically touch. Because of the glass divider, parent and child must talk through a phone from either side.

In the event that visitation is not available at the facility or is not feasible due to distance, best practice encourages ongoing contact by telephone, video-conferencing, letter writing, and pictures. Most facilities provide access to telephone privileges for prisoners, so family members and caregivers can make the necessary provisions needed for the child to receive the calls from their parent. Some facilities may even offer video-conferencing so the child and their parent have the ability to see each other while they talk. Lastly, writing letters and sharing pictures are also good ways for children to stay connected to their parents while they’re incarcerated. Unless unusual circumstances apply, children can write and send letters (with pictures enclosed) to their parents as often as they like and this is likely the least costly form of contact.

Image via

Camille Quinn is an assistant professor at the Ohio State University College of Social Work. She’s the daughter of a Solo Mom and lives in Ohio.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

Send to friend

Download our ESME app for a smoother experience.

Get the app Get the app