Parents and Students in Jail: How are Schools Helping?

How do Schools Support Students with Parents in Jail and Students who, Themselves, are Incarcerated?

Dear Colleague,

Prison. . .Jail. . .Juvenile Correction. . . Detention Facilities. . . Schools.

There has been a great deal of (appropriate) attention- - over the past few years- - on severing the “school-to-prison pipeline.” However, schools need to similarly pay attention to the concurrent reality (and impact) of students who have parents in jail, and students who, themselves, are either in juvenile correction facilities or even adult jails.

Two weeks ago (April 18, 2016), a KIDS COUNT Policy Report, A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families, and Communities was released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The Report documents that in 2011-2012 (the year with the most-recent statistics), there were over 5.1 million children in the United States who had an incarcerated parent at some point in their lives- - 7% of the total child population.

This includes 503,000 children in California, 477,000 children in Texas, 312,000 children in Florida, and 61,000 children in my own state of Arkansas. Percentage-wise, 13% of the children in Kentucky have had a parent incarcerated- - the highest in the nation.

According to the Report, children with an incarcerated parent:

  • Are typically younger than 10 (More than 15% of children with parents in federal prison, and 20% with parents in state prison are 4 years old or younger)
  • Often live in low-income families of color (Compared with white peers, African-American and Latino children are over 7 and 2 times more likely, respectively, to have an incarcerated parent. Moreover, they typically live with a young single mother with limited education.)
  • Are more likely to live with grandparents, family friends, or in foster care when their mother is incarcerated

But, there’s more. . . in fact, another 60,000 more.

According to another report issued just six months ago from The Council of State Governments Justice Center (November 5, 2015), Locked Out: Improving Educational and Vocational Outcomes for Incarcerated Youth, there are more than 60,000 youth who are incarcerated on any day in the United States.

These 60,000 incarcerated youth include: 36,000 who are in state, court-ordered juvenile corrections facilities or centers (typically for 3 to 12 months); 18,000 who are in locally-run detention facilities (typically for less than 2 months as they wait for court adjudication); and 6,000 who are incarcerated in adult prisons or jails.


  • Two-thirds of these are youth of color.
  • Most of them are older than their assigned grade level in school (usually because they haven’t earned enough credits to advance), or have already dropped out of school.
  • Many of them are functioning several grade levels below their peers in reading, math, and language arts; and 60% of them have repeated a grade.
  • One-third of them are or should be receiving special education services.
  • The majority have been suspended multiple times and/or expelled from their local schools.
  • Many have pre-existing mental health concerns. In fact, some reports suggest that two-thirds of incarcerated youth could meet the criteria for a mental disorder- - with one-third needing ongoing clinical care.

The Psychoeducational Impact of Jail

There are clear psychological and educational effects when a student has a parent in jail, or is incarcerated him or herself.

The former students have little or no control over their home/family situations, and the adjustment to or the emotionality around the home/family situation often impacts their attendance, academic engagement, motivation, and performance. Significantly, students with incarcerated mothers have an increased risk of dropping out of school.

Without condoning the behaviors that resulted in their incarceration, the latter students also emotionally react to their incarceration, and these reactions may similarly affect their behavior and performance in whatever schooling their jail, center, or program facility provides.

More specifically, the Casey Report notes that “having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence, and divorce, with a potentially lasting negative impact on a child’s well-being.” These situations increase the probability of physical and mental health issues. This includes increases in depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and anger.

But additionally, a 2006 report from the Justice Policy Institute- - The Dangers of Detention: The Impact of Incarcerating Youth in Detention and Other Secure Facilities- - cites research indicating that such detentions make mentally ill youth worse, while increasing the potential for higher levels of depression, self-harm, and suicide.

Needed Services and Supports

Clearly, students need multi-faceted individual and family-based services and supports (a) when they have a parent who is incarcerated, (b) when they themselves are incarcerated, and (c) when they are about to return and as/after they return to school from an incarceration.

While other agencies and organizations (e.g., social services, the courts and law enforcement/parole, community mental health) need to braid their services and supports, the schools must be involved partners in the planning and implementation process. This is especially important when students are returning from an incarceration.

And yet, given that some of these returning students have significant past histories of suspensions and expulsions, it is easy for schools to simply refuse their re-entry. While this may be illegal in some situations (e.g., for students with disabilities), it is important that administrators (and their student support teams) consider re-entry decisions and programming from a psychoeducational, and even rehabilitative, perspective.

Indeed, some students are incarcerated because they made one horrible decision- - sometimes unpredictably and “out of the blue.” Some students have a checkered past, but have learned from their experiences during incarceration. Other students may still be at-risk for additional offenses. . . and so, we need to educationally program for those risks accordingly.

This is not to turn schools into parole boards. But it is to recognize that schools are educational institutions, that adolescents make (sometimes serious) mistakes, and that the services and supports that schools (supported by other community-based agencies) provide to these returning students may determine their future paths as adults.

These sentiments are echoed in the two reports referenced earlier.

Specifically. . . Of the three broad recommendations in the Casey Report, the first one is most relevant to schools: Ensure children are supported while parents are incarcerated and after they return.

This Report’s most important suggestions in this area were:

  • Make sure that “right-to-know” policies permit communication between and among prisons, and child welfare, health, education, and employment and training agencies and programs so that all are aware of students and families in need of support.
  • Ensure that early education centers, schools, child welfare agencies, community-based health centers, and other local and faith-based organizations offer and coordinate programs and mentoring opportunities that facilitate and address affected students’ physical, social, emotional, and behavioral needs, growth, and well-being. . . on individual, group, and family levels.
  • Ensure that the agencies and support groups noted above provide targeted and continued services, supports, and needed training to children and families during parental incarcerations and immediately before and after the absent parent returns.

Based on a Spring 2015 survey completed by the administrators overseeing every state’s Juvenile Correction Agency and focusing on the 36,000 incarcerated youth in state custody, the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSGJC) “Locked Out” Report identified three major findings.

FINDING 1. Most incarcerated youth do not have access to the same educational and vocational services as their peers in the community, and they do not attend schools that have the same rigorous curriculum and student performance standards as traditional public schools.


1.1 Require all facility schools to provide incarcerated youth with access to the same educational and vocational services that are available in the community.

1.2 Hold all facility schools accountable for student performance and meeting college- and career-readiness standards that are aligned with state requirements for traditional public schools.

1.3 Require all facility schools to receive nationally-recognized accreditation for their education programs.

FINDING 2. Most states do not collect, track, and report student outcome data for incarcerated youth in all facility schools.


2.1 Track data on a minimum set of key student outcome indicators for incarcerated youth (i.e., high school credit accumulation, math and reading proficiency, attendance, school discipline, and high school graduation), and develop the infrastructure needed to collect and analyze these data.

2.2 Establish formal processes for reviewing student outcome data for incarcerated youth and use these data to evaluate and improve school performance

FINDING 3. The policies and practices in most states make it especially challenging for youth released from incarceration to make an effective transition to community-based educational or vocational settings.


3.1 Designate a single agency to be responsible for ensuring youths’ successful transition to a community-based educational or vocational setting after release from incarceration.

3.2 Require juvenile justice and education agencies to track and report on a minimum set of post-release student outcomes including high school credit accumulation, math and reading proficiency, attendance, school discipline, and high school graduation or the equivalent, securing and maintaining employment, and enlistments in military service.

While the CSGJC Report unfortunately did not address the mental health and social, emotional, and behavioral needs of incarcerated youth, it did a nice job of outlining the “effective practice” components needed when students transition from their juvenile justice facilities back to their home schools.

Specifically, the Report recommended that state policymakers require that juvenile justice and education agencies engage in the following practices:

  • Juvenile justice and education agencies should work together to develop a written educational transition plan for incarcerated youth at least 30 days prior to release, and establish timelines for how and when credits and student records will be transferred.
  • At a minimum, a parent/guardian, classroom teacher, and school counselor should be involved in the development of a youth’s transition plan.
  • Youth should be re-enrolled in an educational or vocational setting prior to release from a facility, and attend the school or program immediately upon release.
  • Youth should be re-enrolled in their home school, and automatic placements in alternative education programs should be restricted.

Many of these recommendations complement the five principles delineated by the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice in their December, 2014 Correctional Education Guidance Package that focused on helping states and local agencies strengthen the quality of the education services they provided to their incarcerated youth.

These five principles noted the need for:

  • A facility-wide climate that promotes education and "provides the conditions for learning" through family engagement, protection from harm, effective policies, and student supports.
  • Necessary funding to support educational opportunities for all youths that are comparable to their peers "who are not system-involved."
  • Recruitment of staff with skills relevant to juvenile justice settings and valid credentials in focus areas (like limited English proficiency). Teaching staff should also have access to quality professional development and should be assessed through teacher evaluations.
  • Holding students accountable to the same outcomes as any other student by providing rigorous and relevant curricula aligned with state academic and career and technical education standards that utilize instructional methods, tools, materials and practices that promote college and career-readiness.
  • Processes and procedures that plan for students' eventual release and coordination between schools and agencies.

Recommendations are Fine. . . but Some Incarcerated Youth are Not Getting these Services

While all of the recommended services, supports, policies, and procedures discussed above are relevant, appropriate, and important, verification and authentication also is needed.

This is because sometimes the “talk” does not come close to representing the “walk.”

A Personal State-level Example: Last year, as part of my work as the Director of the Arkansas Department of Education’s federal State Personnel Development Grant, I was asked to visit and review the educational and mental health services of a number of our state’s Division of Youth Services (DYS) Juvenile Treatment Centers.

After visiting three of the state’s seven centers, I shared my impressions in a report.

My ultimate recommendation was for DYS to contract with a nationally- experienced firm to conduct a more extensive, independent audit and assessment of the state’s Juvenile Treatment Centers.

This recommendation was based on my concerns about the quality of educational and mental health services and support not being provided to the incarcerated youth in these centers.

Below are the findings from my report. You can certainly “read between the lines” here to imagine the full state of affairs in the centers that I visited.

Curricular and Technological Issues: Academics and Social, Emotional, and Behavioral

Finding #1. Despite the best efforts of the staff, some of the textbooks/materials in the classrooms are outdated and/or do not completely conform to the Common Core State Standards.

Finding #2. In the social, emotional, and behavioral area, the DYS Education System has no formal, sequenced social skills curriculum to teach students the interpersonal, social problem-solving, conflict prevention and resolution, and emotional coping skills that they need to be successful.

Finding #3. The DYS Education System needs to upgrade and update its technology and availability of hardware- and software-based assistive supports, and complete an updated Technology Audit.

Teacher/Instructional Issues

Finding #4. The DYS Education System’s instructional staff need to know the current functional academic and social, emotional, and behavioral skill level of every student in the school as soon after their enrollment as possible.

Health, mental health, English second language, and disability-related issues also should be immediately determined, shared, and addressed through comprehensive services and supports. Progress monitoring assessments in all of these areas should occur on a continual basis thereafter.

Finding #5. An explicit behavioral standards/accountability system with specific behavioral expectations and targeted responses to inappropriate behavior is not being used in or between classrooms. In addition, an organized, explicit, and strategically-implemented system of meaningful student incentives and rewards was not apparent during any of my visits.

Functional Assessment and Intervention Planning Recommendations

Finding #6. A systematic data-based functional assessment problem-solving process is not being used anywhere in the DYS Education System:

  • To diagnostically determine why students are having academic or behavioral difficulties;
  • To identify specific services, supports, and interventions needed; and
  • To formatively and summatively track the impact of specific treatment approaches.

Instead, students are being clinically labeled, and global mental health status tools are being used to track students’ general psychological functioning.

Finding #7. Intervention planning and evaluation discussions related to students’ specific treatment plans do not routinely occur among classroom teachers, support and safety/law enforcement staff, clinical/mental health staff, and residential staff.

Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Intervention Issues

Finding #8. At the prevention and effective classroom level, the DYS Education System’s classroom teachers and support staff have not received consistent levels of preparation, supervision, and feedback on a number of effective classroom and basic social, emotional, and behavioral intervention approaches. Thus, there is not a consistent “core” or presence of these classroom management approaches available or used for all students.

Finding #9. There are not enough clinical therapists available to meet the needs of the System’s students. In fact, there are more case workers than clinical therapists available, and the latter group is not skilled in how to implement classroom-centered strategic or intensive social, emotional, or behavioral interventions.

Finding #10. Few, if any, students are receiving the cognitive-behavioral therapy approaches needed for the anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and/or phobic conditions that they demonstrate. Treatment approaches like progressive muscle relaxation therapy, anger replacement therapy, and attribution retraining are not evident.

Issues Related to Communication and Collaboration

Finding #11. The students’ “home” schools or districts are not systematically kept “in the loop” relative to the status, needs, progress, and disposition of their respective students.

For example, the home schools or districts are not typically invited to IEP meetings- - which they could attend virtually. Moreover, they rarely are involved in the transition planning needed when a student is preparing to return to his or her home (or transition) setting.

Finding #12. There needs to be better, more accountable, and ongoing coordination among the administrators and supervisors across the different state agencies responsible for these students: the Arkansas Department of Human Services (e.g., the DYS Education System and the Children’s Behavioral Health Division); the Arkansas Department of Education (e.g., the Learning Services Division- - including the alternative education, health, and special education programs; and the Teacher Accountability Division); the Arkansas Department of Career Education (e.g., the Career and Technical Education, Adult Education, and Rehabilitative Services departments); and others.


I understand that- - for schools- - the children and students described in this message are complex, challenging, frustrating, and sometimes unresponsive to our assistance.

At the same time, we are talking about over SEVEN PERCENT of our student population. . .

And these are some of the students who lag in their academic achievement, demonstrate significant behavioral challenges, drop out of school, eventually need welfare support or commit crimes in our communities, and then continue a generational pattern when their at-risk children get ready to come to school.

(I am not trying to suggest a causal pattern here. . . but the probabilities do add up.)

With national, state, and community support and coordination, our schools must be active service providers addressing these students’ academic, social, emotional, behavioral, vocational, and other needs.

While our motivation to help the students whose parents are incarcerated may be more forthcoming- - because the situation is “not their fault,” we must be equally giving to the students who themselves have been incarcerated.

As noted earlier: I “get” that some of these returning students have significant past histories of suspensions and expulsions, and some administrators simply want to refuse their re-entry (sometimes in the “name” of protecting their other students). At the same time, this should be a Student Support Team decision. . . a decision that is based on the student’s current psychoeducational status and needs.

Indeed, in Part D (Prevention and Intervention Programs for Children and Youth who are Neglected, Delinquent, or At-Risk) of the recently reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA/ESSA), it requires State Education Agencies to describe how they will:

  • Establish “procedures to ensure the timely re-enrollment of each student who has been placed in the juvenile justice system in secondary school or in a re-entry program that best meets the needs of the student, including the transfer of credits that such student earns during placement; and
  • Opportunities for such students to participate in credit-bearing coursework while in secondary school, postsecondary education, or career and technical education programming. . . “
  •  . . . “to the extent feasible- - deliver services and interventions designed to keep such youth in school that are evidence-based. . . “

When they plan and write these procedures, I hope that our state education departments will be mindful of the psychoeducational perspective that is needed, as well as to the social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health needs of these students (both with incarcerated parents, and who are incarcerated themselves).

For districts and schools, I hope that you will (continue to) embrace the moral imperative (if not the unambiguous reality) that we need to provide services and supports to these students. While I know that this requires the coordination and support of many community partners, we need to be at the table.

Perhaps, to start, you can use the recommendations above as an informal “check-list” to evaluate the current status of your school or district.

As we move into the last month(s) of the school year, know that I appreciate everything that you do for all of your students and their families. I appreciate your care, your leadership, and your advocacy for all students in need. And I always look forward to YOUR thoughts and comments.

Feel free to contact me at any time. Let me know how I can help your state, regional cooperative, district, or school to move to the next level of excellence.

Feel free to forward this Blog link to your colleagues.