Effects on children of parents in jail

Although there is no official record, it is estimated that 162,000 children in the UK are affected by parental/carer imprisonment every year. Children of prisoners are therefore a small but significant group that, for the most part, remain unnoticed and therefore unsupported. For many families this is exactly how they will want it to stay, as they are afraid of the repercussions and stigma that may result from disclosure. Nevertheless, there is a duty of care and a duty to provide these children with the same opportunities for success as everyone else.

Unlike research on the effects of divorce on children, there are few large-scale studies of prisoners’ children and it has been argued that this reflects pervasive social exclusion of this vulnerable population.

However, early studies of prisoners’ children suggest that parental imprisonment might cause a range of adverse outcomes for children, including aggressive behaviour, depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, eating problems, running away, truancy, poor school grades and delinquency.

The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development in 2003 provides the most significant evidence about children of prisoners. It is a prospective longitudinal study of 411 boys who were born in 1953 and were living in a working-class area of south London at age eight to nine. Outcomes were compared between 23 boys who were separated because of parental imprisonment (between birth and age 10), and four control groups. These were:

Boys with no history of parental imprisonment or parent-child separation (up to age 10).

Boys separated because of hospitalisation or death.

Boys separated for other reasons.

Boys whose parents were imprisoned only before the boy’s birth.

The study found that parental imprisonment during childhood was a strong predictor of antisocial or delinquent behaviour. For example, of boys separated because of parental imprisonment, 65% were convicted themselves between age 19 and 32, compared with 21% of boys with no history of parental imprisonment or separation.

The Cambridge Study also found that parental imprisonment during childhood was a strong risk factor for mental health problems among boys.

Thirty-six per cent of boys separated because of parental imprisonment had high levels of anxiety or depression at age 48, compared with 15% with no history of parental imprisonment or separation. Parental imprisonment was also a risk factor for other adverse life outcomes, including school failure, drug abuse and unemployment. For example, of boys separated because of parental imprisonment, 35% were rated as having “poor life success” at age 48, compared with 9% of boys with no history of parental imprisonment or separation. “Poor life success” referred to a history of poor accommodation, poor cohabitation, poor employment, heavy alcohol use, drug use, anxiety or depression, and offending behaviour.

Although parental imprisonment is a strong predictor of adverse child outcomes, this does not imply that it affects children causally. Children of prisoners might be at risk because of pre-existing disadvantage in their lives, not because parental imprisonment is harmful for children. Prisoners are more likely than the general population to be unemployed, to be of low social class, and to have multiple mental health problems, many criminal convictions, marital difficulties and their own experiences of abuse and neglect.

Large-scale surveys show that children of prisoners also have higher levels of social disadvantage than their peers. Thus, it is necessary to consider whether parental imprisonment causes adverse child outcomes over and above the effects of background adversities.

Findings from three studies are consistent with the idea that parental imprisonment has a causal effect on children, but two studies found no effect. Given these mixed findings, further evidence is needed to determine whether parental imprisonment causes adverse outcomes for children.

Practice implications

Families should be involved in the design, development and delivery of core services for families of prisoners.

Criminal justice legislators should consider the impact on families when sentencing.

Government departments should collaborate more to reduce the conflict between criminal justice and social care legislation.

Service level agreements should cover movements between prisons to ensure families can receive support.

Systems need to be available across the prison estate with the co-operation of other sectors in the community so that families can be identified and offered support early.

Social exclusion, poverty and deprivation are pertinent issues that need to continue to be addressed by the Social Exclusion Task Force’s Think Family review.

Models of good practice exist and consideration should be given to replicating these regionally (for example, the good practice seen in Northern Ireland).

Existing practice requires evidence and evaluation in order to determine a positive impact for children according to the five Every Child Matters outcomes.

Training to encourage more professionals to use the common assessment framework when they have concerns about children.

Further information

Farrington D P (2003), “Key results from the first forty years of the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development”, in Thornberry T P and Krohn M D (eds) Taking Stock of Delinquency: An Overview of Findings from Contemporary Longitudinal Studies, Kluwer Academic/Plenum, pp137-183

Farrington D P et al (2006), Criminal Careers up to Age 50 and Life Success up to Age 48: New Findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development, Home Office (Research Study No. 299).

SCIE Resource guide 11: Children of Prisoners – Maintaining Family Ties

Action for Prisoners’ Families 

Ormiston Children and Families Trust 

Northern Ireland Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders 



More from Community Care

Comments are closed.