Family, Kids & Relationships

Incarcerated Parents Are Being Given a ‘Second Chance’ With New Program

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At Norfolk City Jail in Virginia, 13 incarcerated parents and their families are participating in the Second Chances Program, which teaches parenting skills and gives incarcerated parents opportunities to bond with their kids — giving parents a new way to co-parent while behind bars and to prepare for re-entry into family life.

Norfolk’s Second Chances Program was made possible by a $750,000 grant, which was also supplied to nine other sheriff’s offices around the country for the same purpose. During the 12-week program, incarcerated parents and their co-parents outside of jail take parenting classes, children and inmates can benefit from therapy services, and visitations are arranged in a more family-friendly way.

A parent’s incarceration is hard on kids and families.

According a ChildTrends report, “When a child’s parent is incarcerated, traumatic stress may occur through multiple pathways. First, it involves the loss of an attachment figure, and may be particularly troubling to the child because the loss is not easily explained or understood.” And second, ongoing experiences with systems such as corrections and child welfare can lead to further trauma. When this type of traumatic stress is frequent, prolonged, or extreme without the necessary support, it often leads to long-term health and mental health issues.

About 2.7 million American children currently have an incarcerated parent, and the number goes up to over 5 million children when you count all those who have lived with a parent who was incarcerated at some point during their childhood. So programs for incarcerated parents and their children, if expanded, can have a huge impact on society.

Learning new parenting skills leads to better outcomes.

“I want my son to know his dad,” said Christiana Kowalski, who is grateful that her son gets to see his father without a glass visitation wall between them as part of the Second Chances Program in Norfolk. Because family visitations during the program take place outside of correctional facilities, and include planned activities, parents and children can bond, play, and relax without all of the stressors and constraints of typical prison visits. This also gives parents a chance to practice the new parenting techniques in real time, rather than having to wait until they have served their time.

The enrolled children can also benefit from additional services like tutoring, thanks to an outside agency affiliated with the program. Further, the program includes re-entry services to help the incarcerated parents adjust after coming home. Incarcerated dad Lamont Rowe, who is part of the program, said he plans to “take what I’ve learned, go back in society and change a lot of things that I was doing and keep on going.”

Other programs exist for incarcerated parents, such as Parenting Inside Out, a parenting skills training program developed for criminal justice involved parents. Richard Hines-Norwood, an Oregon father who attended Parenting Inside Out classes while in prison, said that the dads in the class bonded over their own childhood traumas and ways that they wanted to be better for their own kids once they were released. He still found it extremely challenging to parent his teenage daughter after they were reunited — but, he wrote, “having gone through the class taught me that parenting is skill-based. I was struggling as a parent because I needed more skills, not because I was simply a poor parent.”

Programs like these will not only help parents build these skills, but will also build stronger families and a stronger society in the process.


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.