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Explaining Prison for Children of Prisoners Oregon Doc

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Oregon Department of Corrections

How to explain...

Jails and
Prisons Children
A Caregiver’s Guide

How to explain...

Jails and
Prisons Children

A Caregiver’s Guide
Elizabeth Sazie, MD, MPH
Diane Ponder, LCSW
Juanita Johnson

Oregon Department of Corrections
Children of Incarcerated Parents Project

The mission of the
Oregon Department of Corrections
is to promote public safety by holding offenders
accountable for their actions
and reducing the risk of future
criminal behavior.


2001, 2002, 2003 Oregon Department of Corrections

What is this booklet about?
When parents are arrested or put in jail or prison, their children
are often scared, confused, and upset. This is not a rare event.
In 1999, one out of 50 children in the United States had a parent in state or federal prison.
Often, people don’t talk about having a family member in prison
because it is very personal information. Children, though, may
have a lot of questions.
This booklet may help explain to children and families what it is
like to have a mother, father, or other close family member who
is incarcerated.

Who is this booklet for?
This booklet is designed to help moms, dads and caregivers
answer children’s questions about jail and prison. When children and families receive accurate information, they can understand and cope with some of the stress they may experience
when a relative goes to jail or prison.
Most children are curious about jails and prisons, and many
adults don’t know what these institutions are like. The Oregon
Department of Corrections has put together some questions
and answers to help explain the difference between myths and
This booklet is written to reassure families of inmates. It promotes open and honest communication between children and
adults. Ideally, even children old enough to read it on their own
will read it with their caregiver. Children too young to comprehend it on their own can also benefit if an adult talks with them
about the topics in this booklet. These young children need to
be guided by adults through the experience of talking in an
emotionally safe, comforting, and nurturing way.


The words used in the criminal justice system are often confusing because they can mean different things in different places.
Some definitions listed below may help the reader who is not
used to the criminal justice system:
Jails and Prisons are places where people who have been
accused or convicted of crimes are confined or incarcerated.
Generally people stay in jail if they are sentenced for less than
a year’s time or if they are waiting for their trial. If they receive a
sentence for more than a year, they go to prison. People who
are incarcerated are often called inmates.
The court may order supervision instead of, or following, incarceration. This is called probation or parole or post-prison supervision (PPS). The offender is supervised by a probation or
parole officer in the community where he or she lives.
“Supervised” means that the person must follow certain rules,
called conditions. If these conditions are not followed, the person may have to go to jail or prison.


About families
There are all kinds of families. Sometimes children live with
their birth or adoptive mother and father. Sometimes they live
with their mother or their father. Sometimes they live with stepparents or grandparents.
When a parent is incarcerated, the children may change homes to live:


With the other parent.


In foster care provided by someone
they don’t know.

With another family member.
In foster care provided by a family

A change with whom the child lives may
mean moving to a different
neighborhood, school, town, or even
a different state. Sometimes brothers
and sisters live with different people.
All of these changes can be very hard on children. It may help
the child to write down where family members are at this time,
using the outline at the end of this booklet.


Feelings and Emotions
When a family member, such as a mom or dad, goes to jail or
prison, it may be very difficult for everyone involved. For some
children the experience can be emotionally devastating, while
for others it is less serious.
Sometimes it is a relief.
The child’s age, understanding of the situation, and the reactions of others, particularly of family members, all play a part in
the overall impact the experience will
have on the child.
Children may have different feelings,
and sometimes even several feelings
at once, or one right after the other.
Some children might feel sadness,
fear, guilt, disbelief, anxiety, anger,
and/or powerlessness. It is important
to help children understand and work
through their feelings.


Common Questions
To help children work through some of their feelings, including
curiosity, we’ve repeated some common questions we hear
from families and our suggestions for helping caregivers to

Why did Mom or Dad go to jail or prison?
People are sent to jail or prison because they did not obey the
law. Laws are rules that tell us how people should and should
not behave.
Children have rules of behavior, too. When some children break
the rules, they may get a time out or lose privileges. Prison and
jail are like long time outs for adults.
Sometimes even a child as young as 15 who breaks the law
and commits a crime could go to jail or prison like some adults
who break the law. They would have to commit a very bad
crime such as seriously hurting another person. This does not
happen very often.
Teenagers who break the law usually go to special prisons for
young people.

What will happen to me?
Children may have a lot of change in their lives when a parent
goes to jail or prison. No one likes to feel insecure. The following questions and answers can guide discussions to provide


How long will my parent be in jail or prison?
Will I live in the same place?
Will I have to move?
Who will I live with?
Will I be able to live with my parent when he or she gets
out of jail or prison?


Is it my fault?
Many children feel guilty when their parent goes to jail or prison.
They may believe that they caused it to happen.
It is very important to provide children with a
non-judgmental, relaxed, unhurried, and safe
place to express their feelings, thoughts, and
beliefs about why their parent was incarcerated. It is important to help children realize:


There are negative consequences
when a parent breaks the law.


They are not responsible for either the
parent’s behavior or the consequences
of that behavior.

Will I go to jail or prison, too?
Even if children are told they are the “spitting image” of the
parent who went to jail or prison, this doesn’t mean the child
will travel down the same path.
Children need to understand that each person is responsible for
his or her own choices in life.

Where do people in jail or prison live?
Sometimes people live in dorms, but most people share a room,
called a cell, which has two bunks, a sink, a desk, and a toilet.
The cells are usually very small and look alike.

What do people in jail or prison wear?
Different facilities have different dress codes. In Oregon prisons
most inmates wear jeans and a denim shirt or a navy T-shirt.
When they go out to appointments, they may have to wear
brightly colored jumpsuits and cuffs around their wrists and
ankles. In other places, such as jail, they may wear clothes that
look like a doctor’s scrub suit. In some places, they wear their
own clothes.


Where do people in jail or prison eat, and
what kind of food?
Most people eat in a dining room that looks a lot like a school
cafeteria. The food is served cafeteria-style, with inmates lining
up with trays as they choose their food. In some prisons food
on trays is brought to the people. There are usually some choices for people with special needs such as vegetarian meals,
pork-free diets, or low-salt diets.

Do people in jail or prison have a
TV, library, bathroom/shower,
and can they go outside?
In some prisons people can buy their
own TVs, but usually there are special
TV rooms. The programs may change
as different groups of people take turns
choosing the channels that they like.
There are libraries in all facilities. Every
jail and prison has a law library so that
people can work on their own court
Showers are shared by inmates in
each housing unit, and there may be
assigned showering times.
There is usually recreation time, or “yard time,” when groups of
people can go outside for an hour or two. People can walk or
jog around the yard, play sports or lift weights – different facilities have different activities available.


Do people in jail or prison work?
In Oregon, most people in prison are required by law to work.
Some also attend school or special classes.

How do people in jail or prison
spend their time?
People in prison are required to spend
their time productively. They work or go to
school or attend special programs such as
alcohol and drug treatment or anger management classes.
Many also pursue hobbies, especially art,
or they can read, write, watch TV, or exercise when they have spare time.

Are people in jail or prison safe and
Correctional officers work hard to keep the jail or prison safe. If
people in jail or prison have a medical or dental problem, they
may ask to be seen by a nurse, doctor, or dentist in the facility.
Sometimes, people may need special health care outside of the
prison or jail.


Can I see or talk to Mom or Dad when they are in jail
or prison? Do I have to?
Many children can see or talk to their parent even while they
are in jail or prison. Some children, however, may be so angry
or hurt when a parent is incarcerated that
they do not want anything to do with him or
her; others may crave contact. Talking
about and validating the child’s feelings can
be helpful.
Sometimes visiting may not be possible.
For example, the child may prefer to avoid
contact or distance may be a problem. Also,
a restraining order or DOC rule may prevent the parent from having any type of
contact with the child.
When visiting is an option it can usually be
arranged, but requires some time and
preparation. The Visitor’s Handbook and
administrative rule on visiting, available from the Department of
Corrections or on the Internet at, can provide information on visiting and other forms of communication.
Children who want to maintain close contact with their incarcerated parent should be encouraged to write, draw pictures (with
markers, not crayons), talk on the telephone, and visit as much
as possible. Studies show that maintaining contact and allowing
children to visit, if possible, helps the children.


What do I tell other people?
Many people are ashamed to talk about having someone close
to them in jail or prison. It may reassure children to tell them

“Two of every 100 children have had a parent
in jail or prison.”


“YOU didn’t do anything wrong. People should
not try to make you feel guilty or ashamed.”


“Sometimes, it is easier not to talk about a parent who is incarcerated, but you may never
learn that there are plenty of other kids in the
same situation. Talking about it with people you
trust may help.”


“It’s OK to love your Mom or Dad who is in jail
or prison, even if some people don’t think you

In some communities there are groups of kids who have a parent in jail or prison, and they meet to talk about such issues.
This is called a support group. It can be very helpful to have
peers to share feelings and coping strategies. County community corrections and social services agencies should be able to
help you find an appropriate support group.

How can I learn when my parent will come home?
People in jail or prison usually know the approximate date they
will be released. People can also call the Department of
Corrections at 503-945-9090 to find out release dates.


Where can I get help?
Sometimes adults don’t talk about the incarcerated parent
because they are afraid it will upset the child. However, when
the child is upset or hurt or confused, it is
better to express those feelings to others
than to let the emotions stew inside.
Children are likely to worry, and believe
things are worse than they really are if a
parent “disappears” and no one talks about
it or lets them talk about it.
Children should be encouraged to reach
out to those they trust. They can be
encouraged to make a list of people with
whom they feel comfortable talking.
Sometimes, children and families need
more help than family and friends can provide. County information and referral staff can help to find further resources, and
most libraries have Internet access. Some places to get help or
information include:


County health and mental health departments


Oregon Department of Corrections (503) 945-9090 or


Family and Corrections Network (804) 589-3036 or (This site lists books for parents,
caregivers, and professionals to read with children of

Boys and Girls Clubs
NA/AA (Narcotics Anonymous/ Alcoholics Anonymous)
CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
(503) 287-9258


Notes for Caregivers
Children may experience many mixed emotions from the time of
the parent’s arrest to well after his or her release. While these
feelings may be expressed at any time, they are more likely to
come to a head at certain stages: arrest, trial, sentencing, incarceration (and often most strongly during and following visiting),
and at the time of release. Often, the most stressful time is in
the weeks and months following release. It can be difficult for
an absent parent to reconnect with a child who has grown
accustomed to living without him or her.

In summary, children of incarcerated parents need:


To know the parent’s incarceration is not their fault.


To know where and with whom they will be living and
going to school.


To know what will stay the same and what will change
while their parent is incarcerated.


To know it is OK to still love their parent, and it is OK to
be angry sometimes, too.


To be encouraged to express, in safe and healthy
ways, their feelings about their parent and their parent’s


To visit and maintain contact with the incarcerated parent
as much as possible, when permitted and appropriate.


To have stability and consistency in their living situations
and daily routines.


To feel safe.

To know what is happening to their parent.
To know if they can have contact with their parent, and if
so, when and how.

To have fun.
To realize that people make choices in life that lead to
different consequences.


Notes for Children
About my family:
My name is
I live at

My Mom is
She lives at

My Dad is
He lives at

My brother(s) and sister(s) are

My brother(s) and sister(s) live at

People to talk with:
Someone in my family
Someone at my school
Someone at my place of worship
Another adult I know and trust
A close friend


How do I feel today?
Caregivers may use this diagram to help children identify their
feelings using pictures and/or words.



Not sure
Let down







The Children of Incarcerated Parents Project
The Children of Incarcerated Parents Project is a multi-agency
effort to provide targeted, effective programs that meet the
diverse needs of children of incarcerated parents.

Partners in the Children of Incarcerated Parents
Project include:


Central Oregon Community College


Oregon Commission on Children & Families

Children Made Visible, Inc.
Children’s Justice Alliance
Community Action Head Start of Washington County
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon
Girl Scouts Beyond Bars
Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action, Inc.
Next Door, Inc.
Oregon Citizens United for the Rehabilitation
of Errants (CURE)
Oregon County Community Corrections Agencies
Oregon Department of Corrections
Oregon Department of Education/Head Start
Oregon Department of Human Services
Oregon Department of Justice
Oregon Judicial Department
Oregon Local Public Safety Coordinating Councils
Oregon Sheriffs’ Association
Oregon Social Learning Center
Oregon Youth Authority
Oregon Youth Conservation Corps
Portland State University Graduate School of Social Work
Relief Nursery, Inc.



Call 503-945-9056

To Order Booklets:

Call 503-373-7604 ext. 244
or download an order form at:

Oregon Department of Corrections
2575 Center Street, NE
Salem, Oregon 97301-4667

Printing donated by Oregon Corrections Enterprises
Printed by inmates at Oregon State Correctional Institution
(503) 373-0148