An emerging body of research has shown that parental incarceration can negatively impact the emotional, social, and developmental health of children. However, most of the research has been conducted within prison populations. To better understand the scope and potential impact of parental incarceration in a large urban county jail, we surveyed 1,404 inmates in a county jail on their children, parenting responsibilities, and history of incarceration. Nearly half of respondents stated they were parents of at least one child under the age of 18. Over 90% of the incarcerated parents had been to jail or prison previously, 61% reported being the primary financial support for their child(ren), and 62% lived with their children prior to incarceration. Incarcerated mothers were more likely to be have lived with their children and been the primary financial support for their children prior to incarceration compared to incarcerated fathers. Public health officials should recognize the downstream effects of parental incarceration in local jails and ensure appropriate resources, programs, and policies are in place to meet the needs of impacted children.

Key Take Away Points

  • Many children are impacted by parental incarceration; an estimated 92,000 (7%) of children in Harris County have a parent incarcerated in the Harris County Jail each year
  • Parental incarceration at a local county jail impacts children and families; 61.1% of the incarcerated parents in our study reported providing all or most of the financial support for their children prior to their incarceration, 62.2% reported living with their children prior to incarceration, and 91.7% reported previously spending time in jail or prison
  • Prior to being in jail, incarcerated mothers were more likely to report living with their children and being the primary financial support compared to incarcerated fathers

Author Biography

Nancy Correa, DrPH has dedicated her career to making systematic changes to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Dr. Correa is the Practice Administrator for the Division of Public Health and Child Abuse Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Correa utilizes a public health framework to strategically address gaps in practice and knowledge to mitigate and prevent childhood adversities and foster resilience in individuals, families, and communities. Nancy has a bachelors degree from Rice University in Chemistry and Policy Studies, a masters degree from Boston University School of Public Health, and a doctoral degree from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Avni Bhalakia, MD, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and a practicing pediatrician at the Texas Children’s Health Plan Center for Children and Women. She received her medical degree from The George Washington University and completed her Pediatrics Residency at Hasbro Children’s Hospital/Brown University. Dr. Bhalakia has practiced in a variety of healthcare settings and is passionate about promoting the health of all children and their families through community collaborations and partnerships. Keisha White, MD is focused on understanding racial and ethnic health disparities and promoting health equity in patients facing serious illness. Dr. White graduated from Vanderbilt University where she studied Sociology and Medicine, Health, and Society. She earned her Doctor of Medicine and Master of Public Health from the University of Connecticut. Dr. White completed residency training in pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital and fellowship training in hospice and palliative medicine at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Dr. White currently cares for children with complex chronic conditions as a pediatric palliative care specialist. Bethanie Van Horne, DrPH, is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and the director of research for the Division of Public Health Pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Van Horne has over fifteen years working in maternal child health, with experiences in both academic and community settings. Her research and programmatic work have been focused broadly around improving child and family well-being by identifying community needs and trends, helping community programs collect better evaluation measures to make informed decisions, and by helping bring research-based interventions into practice.


We are grateful for the support from the Texas Medical Center Health Health Policy Institute for funding this study and to the Harris County Sheriff's Office for their partnership in this study.