The Hidden Victims of Incarceration

Our parents, or parent, are the very first people that we will ever know. They are the first people we learn to love as we grow from a newborn into a toddler, and eventually an adult. As a kid, they take us to school and pick us up. They might pack your lunch for you each day. They are there when you wake up from a nightmare and run to them for comfort and familiarity. They make each holiday special and chaperone your school field trips. They help you pick out your prom dress and teach you how to drive. And they are there when you graduate high school, crying in the audience as you walk across the stage.

But for some children, this is simply not the case.

The first time I saw my father arrested firsthand was when I was seven years old. By seven, there were already father-shaped gaps in my memory where my dad was simply gone. Years later, I would understand that he was in jail or prison, but as a young child, I was told lies. It is terrifying to watch someone you love, especially a parent, be forced into cuffs right in front of you.

In the United States, 2.7 million children currently have an incarcerated parent.

The National Institute of Corrections also reports that “Over half of those parents are serving time for non-violent offenses.”

Alarming Statistics:

92% of parents serving prison time are fathers (
In 2016, nearly half of people in state and federal prisons were parents of children under the age of 18 (

Between 1980 and 2012, the number of parents in prison grew roughly five times.

How does this affect kids?

The incarceration of one or both parents has been linked to anxiety and depression in children. In one study, it was revealed that children of an incarcerated father, particularly those who witnessed the arrest, developed insecure attachments to their caregivers (NCBI). This anxious attachment may reveal itself through a child acting “clingy” or becoming anxious when separated from the parent. They may also struggle to calm themselves down once the parent returns.

Having a parent jailed or imprisoned also increases a child’s chance of having learning disabilities such as ADHD and developmental delays (

A Dangerous Cycle…

Although statistics on the cycle of incarceration vary widely by source, there is no question that children of incarcerated parents face a set of unique challenges. The sudden removal of a parental figure frequently causes behavioral changes in children which has been found to lead to increased school suspensions and expulsions (National Institute of Justice). It has also been found that the incarceration of a parent may lead to increased risk for antisocial behavior and economic hardship for the child and their caregiver.

In 2017, a study found that “Both present and past parental incarceration was significantly associated with use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription drugs, as well as substance abuse and dependence.” Many studies also demonstrate that children who witness a parent misuse drugs and alcohol are more likely to suffer from substance abuse. This puts them at higher risk of running into issues with the criminal justice system as adults.

Emotional Toll

"The incarceration of a parent can be especially scarring because of the shame that often surrounds it. Some children may be sensitive to the stigma of their parent's crime and imprisonment and feel embarrassed or resentful around their peers and other adults." 
- Human Rights Watch article on parental incarceration

This was certainly the case for me. In elementary and early middle school, I frequently found myself lying about my father. It was especially difficult each year when Father’s Day or the daddy-daughter dance would roll around. I would lie to my friends and teachers and explain that my dad simply worked late and couldn’t come to the dance. Or I’d make the Father’s Day card and throw it away when I got home. I was embarrassed and ashamed that my dad was locked up. This is a feeling that many, if not all children of inmates encounter.

The Physical Toll of Separation

Being separated as a child from your parent causes long-term stress to the body. Due to the stress of being separated from their caregiver, a child’s sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive. Studies show that this prolonged stress response negatively changes the structure of the child’s brain. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University reports that adverse childhood experiences, such as parental separation, increases the likelihood that a child will face physical health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Numerous studies also show that an over-active amygdala (often found in children who are separated from their parents), alters a child’s ability to assess risk and make informed decisions.

How you can support children of incarcerated parents

As someone who has experienced parental incarceration firsthand, here is some of my best advice to caregivers of children who has a parent incarcerated:

  • Help them write and send letters. If the child is very young, have them draw pictures and explain to them how they will send them to their parent.
  • If you are their caregiver, encourage them to talk about their parent and help them find words to describe their feelings.
  • Refrain from criticizing the incarcerated parent, especially in front of the child. Hearing offhand remarks about their parent only causes more confusion and stress for the kid. You can help the child learn from their parent’s situation by explaining the importance of making good decisions. But shaming the parent in front of the child only furthers the shame, embarrassment, and many conflicting emotions the child is already experiencing.
  • If possible, help arrange phone calls. Due to the limited call time, help the child determine what they want to say to their parent BEFORE they call. Help prepare them beforehand so they understand they only have a few minutes to speak to their loved one.
  • Allow the child to celebrate the parent on the parent’s birthday. You can aid them in making birthday cards or even bake a cake to honor the parent. The same can be done for other special events and holidays. Find ways you can allow the child to celebrate and hold space for their parent even when they cannot be together. Holidays and special events can be very painful for kids when their parent is incarcerated.
  • Discuss with the child’s teachers who report cards will be sent to, who will be attending parent-teacher conferences and other school events so they are not in the dark. This will also help the child feel they can be honest with the teacher and ensure there is no confusion in the classroom.

Written by Tiffany Leveille

Edited by Miriam Itzkowitz

Original Graphics by Tiffany Leveille



Alone in ‘the Hole’

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, people worldwide have been left with no choice but to take refuge in their homes and self-isolate. For some, this meant months of online school or teleworking- detached from friends, teachers, and co-workers. For others, quarantine meant months without seeing their families. Across the globe, physically isolated from each other, many teens and adults have experienced increased feelings of anxiety and depression. One thing is sure: the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the dangerous impacts of isolation. It has shown us how quickly the world becomes dark when we’re separated from all sources of light: friends, family, and significant others. Separated from the world that sits directly outside your door, depression, and anxiety can easily creep in.  

This is the harsh reality that those living in solitary confinement must face every day.   

If it was hard for you to sit in your house, where you most likely had access to a television, phones, a kitchen, a comfortable bed, and even a backyard, imagine the struggle of sitting inside a box for twenty-two to twenty-four hours a day. You can’t see the people in the box next to you or touch them. The only person you may notice is the prison guard delivering your meals. You may not see the sun for days, potentially longer. Rats, mice, and other varmints crawl across the floor and sometimes over your own body when you sleep. This is life for an estimated 80,000 men, women, and children living in the American prison system. 

The History of Solitary Confinement in America

Solitary confinement in the United States was introduced in the late 1700s by the Quakers as an attempt to improve prison conditions. They inaugurated this experiment in hopes that it would increase the rate of successful rehabilitations. They thought that confining a person in solitude would allow them to break free from the evil environmental influences that caused them to commit their crimes. Of course, this was not the case, and instead, it introduced solitary confinement to a country that would later hold the most inmates in solitary confinement in the world.

Graphics by Rachel H.

The Health Impacts of Solitary Confinement 

Research regarding the long-term health effects of solitary confinement is still ongoing, but numerous studies have found that solitary confinement causes psychological distress.

Mental Health Impacts:

  • Anxiety and depression  
  • Panic attacks  
  • Hypersensitivity to light and sounds 
  • Increased rates of self-harm and suicide  

Physical Health Impacts:  

  • Fatigue  
  • Insomnia 
  • Muscle and joint pain due to inactivity 
  • Vitamin D deficiency due to lack of sunlight 

So, does solitary confinement prevent recidivism?  

If solitary confinement has such drastic adverse health and psychological impacts, is it at least successful? Success is often measured by the former convict’s ability to find and keep a job and not commit the same (or any offense) again. But data from numerous sources illuminate the alarming truth: 

A majority of those released from solitary confinement are reincarcerated.  

According to a PBS article from 2017, 61% of solitary confinement inmates were rearrested, compared to 49% of general population inmates who were rearrested.

A more recent study conducted in 2019 found a shockingly similar result. Of the 229,274 people released from incarceration in North Carolina between 2000 to 2015, those who were placed in solitary confinement were more likely to die within the first year of release from an opioid overdose, suicide, or homicide death. The study concluded that “Restrictive housing is associated with a higher likelihood of reincarceration and all-cause mortality, including deaths related to opioid overdose, suicide, and homicide.” 

These statistics illustrate the ineffectiveness of solitary confinement. The same program that supporters claim “scare” inmates into reform increases their risk of becoming reincarcerated.  

Building solitary confinement units is also two to three times more expensive than building conventional prison cells.  

Why is this?  

Being rereleased into the world comes with many challenges for those who have lived in solitary confinement for years. Some offenders released from solitary have stated they could not recognize people’s faces, while others were frightened by humans. The truth is, solitary confinement makes living anywhere else nearly impossible. After living in a box for years where sunlight, fresh air, and human interaction are nonexistent, convicts lose all ability to function in any other environment.  

Alternatives to Solitary Confinement 

Twenty-nine states have now introduced laws to ban or restrict solitary confinement, while some have reformed the “prison segregation” system. In 2007, in Parchman, Mississippi, state officials reformed their system to allow inmates outside their units a couple of hours a day. Inmates, through rehabilitation programs, were allowed to work their way up to greater privileges, such as using the basketball courts installed for this reform program. The result: out of more than a thousand inmates in solitary units, only 300 remained after the reform. Eventually, so many inmates were removed from solitary confinement units that Unit 32 was officially closed in 2010. This saved the state of Mississippi more than five million dollars.  

Illinois, Maine, and Colorado have also taken action to acquire successful solitary confinement reform. What these states prove is that safety does not have to be compromised in order to reform solitary confinement practices in America and that there are safer, cheaper, more effective alternatives to solitary confinement.

Read more about solitary confinement from Solitary Watch and the ACLU, or check out our sources below and let us know what you think about solitary confinement by filling out the poll below.

Written and researched by Tiffany Leveille

Edited by Amirah Khan


Alone, in ‘the hole’

Association of Restrictive Housing During Incarceration With Mortality After Release

Does Solitary Confinement Make Inmates More Likely to Reoffend?



How the US Became the World Leader in Solitary Confinement

Prisons Rethink Isolation, Saving Money, Lives and Sanity


The Effects of Solitary Confinement on the Brain

The risks of social isolation

What are the effects of solitary confinement on health?