A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Welcoming Children and Families Affected by Incarceration into Public Libraries

by Megan Sullivan on September 3, 2013

In part because prison and jail authorities have no mechanism to identify children, and in part because no agency is tasked with tracking them, millions of minor children of incarcerated parents often remain invisible in our communities. Because of the stigma of incarceration, families are reluctant to out themselves; consequently, people who interact with these children and their families are often unaware of their predicaments. Yet public libraries are in a unique position to provide a safe haven. They can quietly provide books, media, and other resources that children and families can discover on their own, and they can offer events or opportunities for family and community learning.

An Overview of the Problem

Nearly two million is the number we hear most frequently, though we cannot be sure exactly how many children currently have a parent in prison. In 2008, The U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that nearly 3 million minors have a parent in prison.1 We also know that between 1991 and 2007, in part due to mandatory sentencing requirements, the total number of children of incarcerated parents increased 80 percent.2 The majority of men in prison say their child’s other parent is the current caregiver (88 percent), while 37 percent of women report the other parent is a caregiver while she is in prison.3 Approximately 11 percent of incarcerated women and 2 percent of incarcerated men state that their child is in a foster home or a facility.4 According to a recent Anne E. Casey Foundation Report,5 since 1990, the number of female prisoners has grown by 50 percent, and three quarters of incarcerated women are mothers. This same report noted the disproportionate effect on minorities: African American children are nine times more likely than white children to have a parent in prison; Latino children are three times more likely than white children.

Yet, for various reasons, the statistics cannot be adequately verified. The United States criminal justice system is not required to inquire whether an inmate is a parent; many children and families fear self-reporting because of custodial agreements; some prisoners’ families feel stigmatized; and there is inadequate communication among prisons, child welfare agencies, and other social services.6 Furthermore, any statistical information we do have does not account for the nearly five million children who have a parent under criminal justice supervision.7 If we factor in those children whose parents are currently under criminal justice supervision, such as parole, then we have a far larger pool of children whose needs may well be compromised.

There are other things we do not know for sure. For example, although we have evidence of the problems children face after a parent is incarcerated, we cannot assume all children of incarcerated parents will fare poorly.8 For public libraries this is important; it means we should not assume that because a parent is incarcerated, a child is necessarily doomed to failure. We should instead take the opportunity to reach out to children and to provide adequate resources.

How Libraries Can Help

While children and families affected by incarceration do have some specific needs, they also have the same interests and concerns that their peers do. Therefore, the task of the library is twofold: (1) it should continue to offer programming and resources applicable to all children and families, and (2) it can be prepared to amend this programming as necessary to offer additional resources.

Recommend Appropriate Books and Resources

All children and families will be interested in some of the same books and materials the library offers. Yet libraries can also make available books for children, youth, and teens that address the issue of families and incarceration; in particular, libraries should make available books written specifically for children and youth who have incarcerated parents. Suzanne Bergen and Kathleen Hodgkin’s My Mom Went to Jail (Rainbow Project, 1997) would appeal to a student whose mother is incarcerated, as would Pat Brisson’s Mama Loves Me from Away (Boyds Mills Pr., 2004). Martha Hickman’s When Andy’s Father Went to Prison (Abingdon Pr., 1990) might appeal particularly to boys. Nonfiction texts such as Stephanie St. Pierre’s Everything You Need to Know When a Parent is in Jail (Rosen Publishing, 1994), provide a more nuts-and-bolts approach to the topic. There are workbooks for whole class or small group discussions, and there are books to inform teachers and administrators. For a full listing of possible selections, see Venezia Michalsen’s “Recommended Reading” in Barnard College’s Scholar and Feminist online.9

Provide Conscientious Activities and Programs

Libraries can amend regular programming to address the specific needs of children and families affected by incarceration, and they can offer separate programming. The most efficient way to make your programs more appealing to and relevant for children whose parents are incarcerated is to simply tailor your current program to their needs. Even if patrons do not realize prior to their participation in a program that you will be sensitive to their needs, and even if they never identify themselves as a child of an incarcerated parent, they will remember that you accommodated their needs, and they may be more inclined to attend future library events. Here are some examples of how you can simply tailor your current programs.

If your library offers a youth activity where patrons write letters about what they have read, you can encourage patrons to send their letters to whomever they wish: a caregiver, a parent who is home or away, or someone else. Simply acknowledging the possibility that some parents do not live home will help. If your teen program asks patrons to extend the story they are reading by creating a video about it, you can suggest that anyone who may have a special request of where their clip could be sent can ask you to help him/her look up information. (Some prisons and jails will not allow inmates to receive videos, but you can go online to find out specific rules of specific facilities.) If you offer knitting classes for teens, suggest patrons knit something for someone who does not live with them but for whom they would like to make a gift. If you offer a papermaking class, suggest the same. (The patron may know what can be sent to the prison or jail, but you can also locate this information online if requested.) If you offer a summer reading program for children, offer to print out the results, so children can send a list of what they’ve read to parents.

Offer Programs Likely to Attract Children and Families of the Incarcerated

Offer book clubs or author readings that focus on the topic of incarceration. For children and teens you could read books geared toward children of the incarcerated; for adults you could read memoirs by people incarcerated, recent books on families and incarceration, and so forth. Instead of a typical computer literacy class, offer a computer course for families. The Federal Bureau of Prisons offers a program called TRULINCS that allows some inmates to use email to connect with loved ones.10 Most inmates are not given Internet access, but some do have email access. Check to see what is available in your area, or offer a Q & A program for families. You can engage a special guest speaker with expertise in the area or offer a program where a librarian is available to help families research the rules of the facility where their loved one resides. The patron would need to know what state the inmate resides in, and you can search by that state’s Department of Corrections.

Several state and nonprofit organizations have experimented with non-traditional ways of connecting K-12 students with imprisoned parents. Inmates have recorded video diaries for their children and created audio storybooks. You could apply for a grant or connect with local prisons or jails to facilitate literacy programs between parents and children. Also, find the local resources in your area that are available to families and offer a brown bag dinner or meet-and-greet between agencies and families. At the same time, provide a display of relevant books and titles.

Provide an afternoon of books and resources that would be helpful to caregivers. Most children live with the other parent when a parent is in prison and one-fifth live with grandparents or other relatives.11 According to a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 67 percent of incarcerated mothers say their children are living with relatives.12 Yet we often forget the needs of extended family and others who are caring for children. The most comprehensive information on families and caregiving can be found at the Family and Corrections Network (FCN) website.13 FCN is the publisher of the excellent “Children of Prisoners Library” pamphlet series, written by Ann Adalist-Estrin.

How Libraries Can Reach and Educate All People

Public libraries have a unique opportunity to provide access to information applicable to all families and children. One way to do this is to broaden what we know about children’s rights. Many libraries provide special displays for International Children’s Day and the Fourth of July. Broaden the discussion by creating a display geared toward families dealing with an incarcerated parent. The San Francisco Partnership for Incarcerated Parents has created the excellent “Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights.”14 This resource can be accessed from the group’s website, and provides an excellent analysis of why children need and deserve particular rights. An expanded discussion of children’s rights can be helpful for all patrons, not only those who have a parent in prison.

In order to “advertise” how approachable your library is on the topic, take a month to highlight incarceration and communities. The focus will underscore how all people and communities are affected by incarceration. A patron doesn’t need to have an incarcerated relative to be concerned about this topic; he or she just has to be a community member. For one month, have a shelf dedicated to books about incarceration.

Plan to participate in a “books for prisoners” program sponsored by organizations such as PEN AMERICA, Amnesty International, American Civil Liberties Union, or Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). Collect and donate books to prison libraries. By their nature, libraries are egalitarian institutions: they do not judge people and their needs; they merely provide access.  Therefore, libraries can be neutral places where families of the incarcerated can find information they need, and discover books and other resources to help them survive and thrive when a loved one is incarcerated. Public libraries can also provide information to all patrons on the way incarceration impacts all communities.


  1. The Pew Charitable Trusts, Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Estimated Mobility (Washington, D.C.: Pew Charitable Trusts, 2010), accessed July 21, 2013.
  2. Jessica Nickel, Crystal Garland, and Leah Kane, Children of Incarcerated Parents: An Action Plan for Federal Policy Makers (New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2009).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Stacey Bouchet, Children and Families with Incarcerated Parents: Exploring Development in the Field and Opportunities for Growth (Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2008).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Nickel, Garland, and Kane, Children of Incarcerated Parents.
  8. Megan Sullivan, Tanya Krupat, and Venezia Michalsen, eds. “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” S&F Online 8 no. 2 (spring 2010), Barnard Center for Research on Women, accessed July 21, 2013.
  9. Michalsen, “Recommended Reading,” S&F Online 8 no. 2 (spring 2010), Barnard Center for Research on Women, accessed July 21, 2013, http://sfonline.barnard.edu/children/reading.htm.
  10. Federal Bureau of Prisons, TRULINCS FAQs, accessed Feb. 20, 2013.
  11. Lauren Glaze and Laura Maruschak, “Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children,” US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Aug. 2008), accessed July 31, 2013.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Family and Corrections Network, the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, accessed July 21, 2013.
  14. San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnerships, “A Bill of Rights,” accessed July 21, 2013.

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