Images: Adobe Stock
Data obtained through a records request illustrates how many parents are in North Carolina prisons — and how many kids have parents behind bars
Almost 10,000 people in North Carolina prisons are the parent of a child younger than 18 years old. And at least 18,800 children across the state have a parent who is imprisoned, according to an analysis by the Department of Adult Correction.
The report, which Policy Watch obtained through a public records request, is a reminder that many imprisoned people have young children who rely on them, said Melissa Radcliff, the program director of Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center. Those parents need resources and support to be the best mothers and fathers they can be, Radcliff said, both while they are incarcerated and when they come home.
“They’re not ‘offenders.’ They’re not ‘inmates.’ In this report, they’re parents,” Radcliff said. “And most people who go to prison or jail continue to be parents.”
And even when they get out, Radcliff said, those formerly incarcerated parents need reentry help so they can look after their families and avoid going back to prison.
“To employers, if you hire someone with a criminal record, you are giving a job to a person, but also to a parent who can now support their children,” Radcliff said.
The figures are an undercount of the total number of kids in North Carolina with parents behind bars, Radcliff said, since they don’t reflect the number of parents in county jails or who are in federal prison.
Even for state prisons, it’s possible the numbers are undercounts for myriad reasons: People entering the prison system might not disclose they are parents for fear social services will get involved in their family. Others don’t want to be tracked down for child support. And still others might unintentionally omit the information during the intake process, which is a very stressful time for those staring down a decades’ long sentence.
“There are lots of reasons someone might say no, they don’t have kids, when in fact they really do,” Radcliff said.
Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center is assisting the Department of Adult Correction with redesigning their visitation rooms in the 13 reentry prisons across North Carolina, to make them more welcoming spaces for children. And the organization plans to offer parenting classes in five prisons by the middle of April.
“Folks are hungry for that,” Radcliff said. “They’re looking to find ways to stay connected with their kids while incarcerated or upon release.”
The kids aren’t alright
Having a parent in prison can have a profound effect on a child. Those impacts can range from financial — losing a family’s breadwinner could mean a child goes hungry or has to move — to the emotional, as the separation can have long-term effects on a child’s mental health. Most kids with imprisoned parents go on to live with other family members. Often, they experience mental and physical health-related challenges as they grow older.
Nationally, Black children are disproportionately represented among children with incarcerated parents. A 2009 study found that one in four Black children in 1990 had an imprisoned parent.
North Carolina’s Department of Adult Correction does not break down its incarcerated parent reports by race, which Radcliff said is another limitation of the data. The reports also don’t list where those children live.
“I don’t know if 10,000 of those kids are in Wake County, or whether 200 of them are in New Hanover County,” Radcliff said.
The reports also don’t reflect some key information: the children’s school performance, the level of contact with their parents or their feelings about having parent who is incarcerated.
Nonetheless, the reports are a starting point that at least hint toward the number of children who have parents in North Carolina prisons.
Radcliff collects the DAC reports every year. She knows it’s hard for people to visualize such a large number, so she puts beans in a glass jar — one for every child with a parent locked in a North Carolina prison. That helps people to see, even if the number is an undercount, there are almost 19,000 kids — roughly the seating capacity of Raleigh’s PNC Arena and Charlotte’s Spectrum Center — across the state who have an imprisoned parent.
“Statistics are important, but there are kids behind those numbers,” Radcliff said. “They’re not just the numbers.”
Policy Watch obtained the Department of Adult Correction reports from 2014 to 2023. Below are some numbers and visualizations from the reports. Some other figures from research reports are also included.
9,902 – Number of parents imprisoned in North Carolina prisons, as of Jan. 14, 2023
18,888 – Number of children with parents incarcerated in North Carolina prisons as of Jan. 14, 2023
10.12 – Average age of children with parents in North Carolina prisons, the equivalent of a fifth grader
5,829 – Number of people who left North Carolina prisons last year who reported that they were parents
52 – Approximate percentage of people imprisoned in state prisons across the country who are parents of children aged 17 or younger, according to a paper published by Florida State University researchers
32 – Approximate percentage of people in North Carolina prisons who are the parent of a child, according to the Department of Adult Correction.
12 – Number of states that have passed legislation to address family separation by incarceration. North Carolina is not among them.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.