The Impact of Incarceration on Families in America

The negative effects that individuals experience after being incarcerated are well documented, but much less is known about the challenges that families face when a loved one is incarcerated.

This report shows that approximately one in two adults in America (approximately 113 million people) has had an immediate family member incarcerated at some point.

This research examines an important but understudied aspect of mass incarceration and provides new estimates on the prevalence of family incarceration for parents, siblings, spouses, and children.


I love Christmas. I love to bake pies and decorate a freshly cut fir tree and wrap presents while watching It’s a Wonderful Life with my mom. I love, most of all, just being with my family. I cling to the comfort of my family being safe and together because I know what it feels like not to have that.

The Christmas I was eight years old I woke up early, like every year, too excited to sleep. But I wasn’t focused on the presents in my stocking; the present I wanted most of all that year was for my father to walk through the door.

We had moved a few months before, 500 miles away from my dad, but he had promised he would drive up to celebrate the holidays with us. I was sure he would come that morning. Perhaps he was going to surprise me as he did when I was three, dressed as Santa Claus, an enormous, laughing bear of a man — out on bail while his federal charges were processed.

The phone rang; it was a collect call, the automated coldness of which I had heard many times before. I accepted the charges and heard my father’s voice. He would not be coming, not that morning. On Christmas Eve, as he loaded the car for his trip, he had been arrested for a violation of his parole.

One of the worst parts of growing up with a father in and out of prison was the isolation and shame I felt. It was not for another decade that I even heard the words “children of incarcerated parents” — a group I was part of although I had never known it existed.

It turns out that this is an enormous group, as outlined in this report. But the problem is not limited to parents and children. When my father was incarcerated, it cost my whole family, particularly my mother, who was left to raise two small children alone, and my grandparents, without whose financial and emotional support I would not be where I am today.

The research presented in this report provides our first look at the full range of family incarceration, and it is staggering. 1 out of every 2 adults in the United States (113 million people) has lived through some version of what I lived through a parent known only through snatches of prison visits, a brother or sister missing, a child locked away. 1 in 7 adults has had a close family member spend more than one year in jail or prison — over 35 million people.

These numbers are stunning, all the more so if you think of them not as numbers but as stories like mine. My hope is that this new research can help others begin to see through that fog of isolation and shame that hovers around too many families who have experienced incarceration, to see their own stories as part of a larger whole, important and worthy of telling. Most importantly, I hope they motivate everyone — those who have experienced it personally as well as those who have not, yet — to take action and help end mass incarceration and the harm it causes American families.

Felicity Rose

Director of Research and Policy for Criminal Justice Reform,

On any given day, there are more than 1.5 million people behind bars in state or federal prisons in the United States.

Admissions to local jails have exceeded 10 million each year for at least the past 20 years.

These numbers still minimize the harmful effects of incarceration on our economy, communities, and families. Taxpayers spend $273 billion each year on the criminal justice system (police, courts, and corrections) and researchers estimate that the economy loses $87 billion in annual Gross Domestic Product due to over-criminalization and the harmful effects of felony convictions.

Fortunately, there is an emerging bipartisan consensus that the status quo fails to make us safer and the fiscal and human costs of mass incarceration far outweigh any public safety benefits.

States across the country are adopting common-sense reforms to reduce incarceration and the number of people behind bars has fallen in recent years while the country enjoys historically low crime rates.

Prevalence of Family Incarceration

In partnership with a research team based out of Cornell University, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 4,041 adults age 18 or older to estimate the prevalence of family incarceration. The survey was conducted online and by phone in English and Spanish in the summer of 2018 and asked about a wide range of experiences associated with the incarceration of an immediate family member.

According to survey results, one in two adults (45 percent) has had an immediate family member incarcerated for at least one night in jail or prison.

Many of the hardships that families face are heightened when the person who is incarcerated has children. Indeed, adults age 18 to 29 reported having had a parent incarcerated at nearly twice the rate of respondents from other age groups (34 percent compared to 18 percent).

This reflects the rapid growth in jail and prison populations over the past four decades, and speaks to the impact mass incarceration has had on several generations of children in our country.

This shocking new estimate of family incarceration may even be conservative given that it limits immediate family members to parents, brothers, sisters, children, current spouses or romantic partners, or anyone else with whom the respondent has had a child. The most obvious exceptions to this definition are grandparents and grandchildren, and many families are structured around grandparents and older generations of relatives.

To better understand the intergenerational impact of family incarceration, and the diverse family dynamics impacted by incarceration, respondents were also asked about their experiences with incarceration for extended family members including grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and in-laws. Using this broader definition of family, survey results show that 64 percent of adults have experienced incarceration in their family.

Today, there are an estimated 6.5 million adults with an immediate family member currently incarcerated in jail or prison (1 in 38). Just under 40 percent of these people reported that there are children under 18 in their household, suggesting the overall number of people experiencing family incarceration is much higher than our estimates which only include adults.

While incarceration does not affect all communities equally, there are noteworthy similarities across groups.

For example, adults who identify as Protestant and Catholic are just as likely to report having had an immediate family member incarcerated — 43 percent and 42 percent, respectively.

The experience of having an immediate family member incarcerated is also not unique to any political party. In fact, rates of family incarceration are nearly identical for Republicans (43 percent) and Democrats (45 percent).