Researchers at the University of Southern Maine have found that more than 3,400 children had a parent incarcerated in one of the state’s prisons in the last five years.

That number represents 1.4 percent of children and teenagers in Maine. The report, however, warned that the findings are a small glimpse at a bigger problem. Their project did not include data from county jails, the state’s juvenile prison or probation services. It also did not include any adults who were released from prison before 2015.

Still, the study is the first of its kind in Maine, and its authors hope the findings will result in policy changes to better support families who are impacted by the criminal justice system.

“This is an undercount, and we know it is,” said Erica King, one of the researchers. “It’s a first step.”

The research came from the Justice Policy Program at the Cutler Institute, which is part of the Muskie School of Public Service at USM. The Maine Department of Corrections provided them with deidentified data about people who were incarcerated between January 2015 and May 2020.

A spokeswoman said the department was “happy to support the report.”

“The MDOC has reviewed the recommendations, many of which are in practice and currently being worked on further,” Anna Black wrote in an email.

The project also involved women who are currently or formerly incarcerated. Among them was Jacinta Hunt of Portland, who met King in a college class while she was in prison. She is now a student at the University of Maine at Augusta. Hunt has a 14-year-old daughter.

“What I learned firsthand coming home is my release didn’t just affect me,” Hunt said. “It’s a whole new lifestyle for the child.”

A 2010 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts estimated that 2.7 million children in the United States had a parent in jail or prison, the majority for nonviolent crimes. Another study published in 2015 by Child Trends, a nonpartisan research group focused on children and families, found that more than 5 million children in the United States have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point. That research has also found that parental incarceration disproportionately impacts children who are Black, children who live in poverty and children who live in rural areas.

Studies have also shown that parental incarceration is a traumatic experience.

“Children who have experienced parental incarceration are more at risk for homelessness, depression and anxiety, economic instability, low educational attainment, and juvenile justice system involvement,” the Justice Policy Program report said. “Incarcerating mothers of young children is particularly problematic as it disrupts a key parental bond during critical years of development.

At the end of October, more than 3,100 people were incarcerated in Maine. About 1,700 were in prisons, which usually hold people who are serving sentences longer than nine months. Another 1,400 were in jails, which hold people who are awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences.

The prison population, especially women, generally increased during the time of the Justice Policy Project study. That number has dropped slightly because of the pandemic, however, and there were 1,560 men and 127 women in Maine prisons last week.

The Justice Policy Program study reviewed records from more than 2,100 people who identified themselves as parents. That included 345 mothers and 1,789 fathers. Of that group, 82 percent were white, 11 percent were Black and 4 percent were Native American. The race or ethnicity of the children was not reported, but those data reflect the fact that people of color are disproportionately incarcerated in Maine prisons. In this case, the researchers broke down the data to show that Native American or Indigenous mothers were particularly impacted by that inequity.

A majority of the children — 52 percent, or more than 1,700 — were between the ages of 11 and 17. Another 39 percent, or more than 1,300, were between 5 and 10 years old. And 9 percent, or nearly 300 children, were younger than 5 years old.

“To me, that just hit home,” said Jillian Foley, another author of the report. “Just thinking of that key developmental period and the fact that one of more of their parents were not there.”

The researchers emphasized that only a small number of the parents were incarcerated for an offense against their child or had a court order not to contact their child.

“There’s no criminal reason or public safety reason that they couldn’t have supported contact,” King said.

The report outlined several key recommendations. The first was to invest in community-based support and preventative programs, like affordable substance use treatment and educational opportunities. The researchers also emphasized the need to find alternatives to incarceration, and they mentioned bills passed in states such as Massachusetts to expand those options specifically for parents of dependent children.

“I want a judge to ask a mother about their children,” Hunt said. “The courts don’t consider children when they are sentencing you, regardless of age.”

The report also recommended a review of visitation policies and parenting programs at correctional facilities to make sure they are encouraging parental involvement. A general policy posted on the Department of Corrections website says visits with minors are allowed with certain approvals.

“We certainly agree that investing in community supports, supporting re-integration and other targeted services will benefit women involved with the justice system, their children, and their extended family,” Black said.

Other recommendations included more support for parents who are returning to their families and communities, targeted support for children with incarcerated parents and more data collection to understand the long-term impacts of parental incarceration in Maine.

“There’s a lot more we could be doing for these children in their communities,” King said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.