Approximately 92,000 children in Harris County experience parental incarceration annually via the Harris County Jail. Texas Children’s Hospital, in collaboration with Baylor College of Medicine, the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office released a report discussing the results of a local parental incarceration study.
This one of a kind study represents an interdisciplinary and public health approach to addressing the impact of parental incarceration at the local level. The purpose of the study was to conduct a needs assessment in order to identify the needs of children whose parents are incarcerated at the Harris County Jail, as well as fostering short and long term outcomes.
Parental incarceration is defined as any type of custodial confinement of a parent by the criminal justice system (jails and prisons). Previous research indicates that children who are impacted by the incarceration of a parent are likely to experience negative adversities such as childhood health problems, behavioral problems, and poor mental health in adulthood. In 2010, the Bureau Justice Statistics released a report detailing information about parents in prison and their children. Since then, several reports have followed estimating how many children nationally are impacted by having a parent in prison. Most recently a report from FWD.us and Cornell University has garnered nationwide attention by addressing the issue of familial incarceration, and the prevalence of incarceration effecting at least half of the United States. Despite the increase in conversation about the collateral consequences and hidden victims of incarceration, there is limited information about the specific number of children whose parents are housed in county jails.
Texas has more than 200,000 individuals incarcerated in jails and prisons, and approximately 477,000 children in Texas has experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point in their lives. Harris County is the third largest county in the United States with approximately 4.6 million residents, and Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation. The Harris County Jail played a pivotal role in the study with Texas Children’s Hospital by adding nine questions to their intake form in order to identify which inmates were parents. Prior to this study, this type of information was not captured, and therefore there was no way to obtain an estimate of the impact of parental incarceration in Harris County. In a recent press conference, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez stated that shortly after he became Harris County’s Sheriff, “We identified a critical unmet need in our community; how to help children cope with the trauma caused by having a parent in jail?” Sheriff Gonzalez further reiterated the importance of data-driven research about parental incarceration in Houston.
The conclusions from the study were drawn from interviews with inmates at the Harris County Jail, interviews with caregivers of the incarcerated parents, and information obtained from an intake form from the Harris County Jail. The study found that inmates that reported being a parent or caregiver to at least one child under the age of 18 were overwhelmingly male (82%) and Black (53%). For male inmates, the results indicated that the mother (86%) was typically the primary caregiver while they are incarcerated in the Harris County Jail. However, if the mother is incarcerated, the primary caregiver is either the father (39%) or a grandparent (31%). Sixty one percent of charges against incarcerated parents were felonies and 37% were misdemeanors. Assault (24%) and drug related offenses (19%) were the two most common charges. Interviews with 26 inmates were able to capture additional information such as the impact incarceration has on their families not only emotionally, but also financially. The study reported that 61% of inmates were the main financial providers for their households, which results in a hardship for many families when their lives are disrupted when a person is in jail. Caregiver interviews provided insight on the stress that is associated with having a loved one incarcerated such as financially, and trying to ensure that the inmate remains in communication with their child through phone calls and visits at the jail. Nancy Correa, Texas Children’s Hospital Sr. Community Initiatives Coordinator, stated that caregiver interviews revealed that the biggest needs for individuals caring for children whose parents were incarcerated at the jail were “basic needs such as food, car seats, affordable childcare, and transportation.” Caregivers also raised concerns about the lack of understanding regarding the criminal justice system process such as court dates and the uncertainty of punishment and sentencing. Although the report identified a few programs and services available to families that are impacted by parental incarceration, there is a need for evaluating them in order to identify what works in order to foster resilience.
Now that some of the needs of children who are impacted by incarceration in Harris County has been identified, we must now focus on a different set of questions that specifically relate to individuals incarcerated short term at the local versus state and national level. Annually, the Harris County Jail processes over 100,000 individuals, and individuals who have yet to be convicted represent approximately 75% of the population. Harris County is currently undergoing serious revisions to its bail system; however, how will the new changes impact the pretrial population and individuals who have children under the age of 18? Are there opportunities for parents who have committed low level non-violent offenses to receive alternatives to incarceration in order to lessen the impact of separation of families? There is also a need to expand this type of needs assessment utilized in this study to other jails within the state of Texas.