When Mom or Dad is Locked Up: Prison Stats

Amy Bracken
June 1, 2001

Profile of Parent Prisoners

A statistical look at parents in prison, according to a survey released last year by the U.S. Department of Justice.


The number of children with parents in prison rose from 936,500 in 1991 to 1,498,800 in 1999. The number of children with imprisoned fathers (1,372,700) rose 58 percent during that time, while the number with imprisoned mothers (126,100) rose 98 percent.

In 1999, 56 percent of prisoners had a minor child, and 58 percent of children with imprisoned parents were under 10.


Forty-four percent of parents in state prison were sentenced for violent crimes, which include robbery (13 percent), homicide (11 percent), sexual assault (8 percent) and other assaults (10 percent). Fifty-one percent of non-parents in prison are in for violent crimes.

Sixty-seven percent of parents in federal prison are in on drug charges; the rate was 24 percent in state prisons. Drug trafficking is the most common charge.


The average sentence for parents is 6.5 years in state prisons, 8.5 years in federal prisons.

Substance Abuse

Parent prisoners used drugs prior to incarceration at a higher rate than their non-parent counterparts. Most parents in state prison used drugs in the month prior to incarceration, and one-third were on drugs at the time of their offense. One-third of mothers in state prison reported that they had committed their crimes in order to get drugs or money for drugs.

Twenty-five percent report having had an alcohol dependence.


Seventy percent of imprisoned parents did not have a high school diploma.


Twenty-seven percent of the fathers and 50 percent of the mothers were unemployed at the time of their arrests.


Fifty percent of incarcerated parents were black. About 25 percent were white and 25 percent Hispanic.

Seven percent of all black children in the U.S. have an imprisoned parent, which is nine times higher than the rate for white or Hispanic children.

Households Before Prison

Prior to imprisonment, less than half of parents report that they lived with their children – 44 percent of fathers, 64 percent of mothers.

Fifty percent say they were never married, 25 percent say they are currently married.

Contact with Children

Forty percent of fathers and 60 percent of mothers have contact with their children weekly by phone, mail or visit.

Fifty-seven percent of fathers and 54 percent of mothers have never been visited in prison by their children.

Where the children live

Most children of prisoners live with relatives. About one in 10 lives with a friend, while another one in 10 is in foster care.

Ninety-two percent of incarcerated fathers say their children live with their mothers. Twenty-eight percent of incarcerated mothers say their children live with their fathers.

Source: “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children,” U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2000.

Bracken, Amy. "When Mom or Dad is Locked Up: Prison Stats." Youth Today, June 2001, p. 14.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.