Mass Incarceration Wreaks Havoc on Children and Communities

Posted on

by Megan K. Rauch- An estimated 55,000 children in Nevada—and more than five million children nationwide—are suffering from the instability and trauma caused by having an incarcerated parent, according to a new study from The Annie F. Casey Foundation. The report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities,” says that having a parent behind bars is “a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being.”

The report describes a number of detrimental effects having a parent in prison or jail can have on a child, regardless of whether the parent and child lived in the same home. Among the most dangerous are: hunger, loss of income or child support, and housing instability. Children who have an incarcerated parent are also more likely to have problems in school or suffer from mental heath issues, especially depression and anxiety.

The Casey report emphasizes that these factors are more prevalent among people of color and in low-income communities. Families in these neighborhoods are more likely to report feeling unsafe and parents say they lack access to reliable childcare.

Eight percent of Nevada’s children have experienced parental incarceration, according to the report, compared to the national average of seven percent. Kentucky has the highest rate of parental incarceration at 13 percent and the lowest reported figure was New Jersey at 3 percent.

The table below presents the rate of parental incarceration for states in the Intermountain West. Only Arizona and New Mexico have higher rates of parental incarceration than Nevada.




Incarceration Numbers

Percent of Population













New Mexico










Possible Policy Solutions

The Casey Report stresses that the need for prison reform becomes more urgent when policymakers consider the disruption and instability it creates in children’s lives. Until such reforms take place, the report calls for better supports both for children and families experiencing incarceration and for inmates upon reentering the community.

  • Many states have adopted policies that take children and families into consideration when choosing a prison assignment for a parent. The report notes that the director of public safety in Hawaii is bound by law to take children and families into consideration when assigning an inmate to a prison. This option would afford children the opportunity to maintain contact with a parent while he or she is incarcerated.
  • Because 77 percent of prisoners are likely to be arrested again within five years of release, more programs that provide both educational/vocational training and coping skills for reentry are needed to prepare inmates for a successful life after incarceration. In addition, some policymakers cited in the report recommend eliminating the criminal record questions from job applications. This would also help lower the recidivism rate by affording former inmates better access to steady, legal employment.

One such program that has seen success here in Nevada is Hope for Prisoners, which partners with inmates and their families to ensure a smooth, positive transition upon release. Two prisons in Nevada recently joined The Sagebrush Prison Project, in which inmates grow and tend sagebrush plants that will be planted in areas that have been damaged by forest fires. A representative of the project told The Las Vegas Review Journal that it helps to nurture both horticulture and team-building skills among inmates.

The College of Southern Nevada has indicated its interest in launching what would be the Silver State’s only prison education program to help lower recidivism rates and improve outcomes for former inmates and their families. A 2015 survey of 13,000 inmates by The Nevada Correctional Education Consortium found that most were unemployed at the time of their arrest, lacked a high school diploma and read on average between a 6th and 8th grade level.

  • Providing safe, reliable childcare and improving schools in low-income neighborhoods are two things that can not only better support children and families during parental incarceration but also reduce the school-to-prison pipeline. In Nevada, the state’s plan to make full-day kindergarten available in all schools by 2017 (SB515) and expand the number of charter schools serving low-income communities (SB491) are two more steps that can help improve the lives of children experiencing parental incarceration.

Providing better funding for wraparound services at schools in low-income areas has proven successful.  Last year, the Nevada approved $21 million to fund Victory Schools (SB432), which allows struggling Title I schools to provide more expansive wraparound services to students. Almost all of the 24 schools in Clark County given Victory School funds reported double- and triple-digit gains in math and English.

Additional Resources:

  • Visit the Nevada KIDS COUNT website to find longitudinal data on the health, education, and well-being of children in Nevada.
  • A full list of the current inmate programs offered by the Nevada Department of Corrections can be found on their Administrative Regulations
  • The Las Vegas Sun’s series, “Children in Crisis” takes an in-depth look at the current state of mental health for children in Southern Nevada.