Supporting Children of Incarcerated Parents

Parental Incarceration in Minnesota and US


An estimated 17% of youth in Minnesota have an incarcerated or previously incarcerated parent, making parental incarceration one of the most frequently reported Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) for this population (MN Student Survey, 2018).

  • Minnesota youth with an incarcerated parent have increased risk of poor mental health and illness, substance abuse, and poor academic outcomes.
  • Among the 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., nearly one-third of them are incarcerated in local county jails. In addition, over 10.6 million people are admitted to a county jail each year, including individuals who are awaiting trial.
  • An estimated two-thirds of adults in Minnesota jail are parents with minor children, most lived with one of their minor children before their arrest, and a majority are interested in participating in parenting education.
  • Jails can support families impacted by the legal system through policies, programs, and resources offered in the jail, and by connecting them to a range of community-based services to meet their needs.

MDH Initiatives to Support Families Impacted by the Legal System

Minnesota Model Jail Practices Learning Community to Support Children of Incarcerated Parents

The Minnesota Model Jail Practices Learning Community aims to improve parent-child relationships, reduce recidivism, increase child wellbeing, and improve public safety.

The MN Department of Health and the University of Minnesota are partnering to facilitate this multidisciplinary Learning Community that engages partners at the state and local levels to help implement policy, systems, and environmental changes that benefit children of incarcerated parents and their families.  Monthly meeting with county jails to learn best practices and share resources. For more information contact Anna Lynn [email protected] or Dr. Rebecca Shlafer [email protected]

Model Practices for Parents in Prisons and Jails

parent and child holding hands

Goals and Objectives

This project is designed to promote and expand services in local jails and communities to support incarcerated people and their minor children. 

Five Focus Areas to Improve Jail Environment

There are five pillars of activity that will focus the Learning Community efforts to address the identified problems, including: providing evidence-based parenting education classes, building community coalitions and partnerships, providing staff and partner training, leveraging state agency partnerships, and implementing other model jail practices such as improving visiting environments and intake practices. Partnerships with schools and family home visiting will be established to increase services and parent-school contacts during incarceration. The MN Model Jail Practices Learning Community is building capacity through these county jail sites, sharing lessons learned and expanding the impact and reach across the state.

Five focus areas to improve jail environment.

Parenting Inside Out (PIO)

Addressing the unique situation and issues of system involved parents.

Parenting Inside Out (PIO) is an evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral parent management skills training program created for incarcerated parents through a six-year collaboration of scientists, policy makers, practitioners, and instructional designers. Both the information in the program and the way that information is presented were informed by knowledge derived from research and practice.

parenting inside out curriculum in the classroom

*Picture courtesy of Stearns County Jail.

Jail Learning Community Participating Counties

Current partner jail sites, range in size and geographic location, including Carlton County Jail, Olmsted County Jail, Ramsey County Correctional Facility, Renville County Jail, Stearns County Jail, and Sherburne County Jail.

jail learning community participating countiesThese efforts are currently supported by a federal three-year grant from the Department of Justice, OJJDP Second Chance Act (October 2020). Both MDH and Sherburne County currently have Second Chance Act grants that are supporting these efforts.


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Carlton County Jail (CCJ)

Carlton County Jail (CCJ) is located in Carlton, MN. CCJ has a 48-bed capacity for pre-and post-adjudicated men (73%) and women (27%). In 2019, CCJ served 1,388 people. The Survey of Parents in MN Jails estimated that 70% of adults in CCJ were parents of a minor child, including 67% of the females and 70% of the males.

  • Current Innovation: CCJ recently made improvements to the visiting area, adding child friendly decorations, toys and art supplies, including matching set of children’s books (one book on each side) to allow parents to read to their children. CCJ also implemented a Family Friendly Visiting Program (FFVP) that includes non-contact visits with all children (biological, foster, step), extended visits when feasible, a follow-up parenting education assignment after each visit and a post-visit evaluation about the impact on the parent-child relationship. After four FFVP visits, the incarcerated parent receives a recordable book to give to each child and a copy of Parenting from Prison: A Hands-On Guide for Incarcerated Parents. Parents successfully participating in the FFVP may be eligible for a staff-supervised contact visit with their children. CCJ has a number of active community partners that support this work, including the Lions Club and the Family Service Collaborative.
  • Unique Priorities: CCJ will implement model intake processes, including ways to ensure action steps are taken once risks are identified (e.g., trauma/mental health needs). CCJ will hire a community/family liaison to provide on-site coordination of parenting resources, facilitate community partnership, and establish family focused re-entry, including referrals and follow-up for children and families. CCJ will identify opportunities to expand contact visits and add a restorative justice practice and co-parenting education components to the FFVP.

Ramsey County Correctional Facility (RCCF)

Ramsey County Correctional Facility (RCCF), located in Maplewood, MN, has a 556-bed capacity for post-adjudicated men (48%) and pre and post-adjudicated women (52%). In 2019, RCCF served 4,076 people, including 3,785 new admissions. RCCF houses all post-adjudicated people in Ramsey County and pre and post-adjudicated females from Dakota County. The Survey of Parents in MN Jails estimated that 72% of adults in RCCF were parents of a minor child, including 79% of the females and 71% of the males.

  • Current Innovation: Recently RCCF solidified a five-year contract, with the MN Prison Doula Project (MnPDP). MnPDP offers a doula (a non-medical birth support person) to every pregnant female for pre- and postnatal support. Women participating in MnPDP are eligible for face-to-face visits with their children, parenting classes, and 1:1 parenting support. In 2019 RCCF began offering the same services to fathers.
  • Unique Priorities: RCCF will improve the intake process to gather information about immediate and long-term parental needs (e.g., contact with schools, co-parenting status, living arrangements) in order to facilitate referrals and targeted services. RCCF will improve family notification; using available technology (e.g., text) to notify families about visit changes or cancellations, and include co-parent and caregiver support in parenting classes, in partnership with community-based providers. RCCF will also explore opportunities to facilitate focus groups with incarcerated parents and caregivers to improve parent activities.

Renville County Jail (RCJ)

Renville County Jail (RCJ), located in Olivia, MN, has a 72-bed capacity for pre- (52%) and post (48%) adjudicated men (74%) and women (26%). In 2019, RCJ served 892 people, including 867 new admissions. RCJ has a federal contract to house individuals from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and the MN Correctional Facility-Shakopee, the state’s only prison for women. The State Survey of Parents in MN Jails estimated that 67% of adults in RCJ were parents of a minor child, including: 78% of the females and 64% of the males.

  • Current Innovation: RCJ has a strong philosophy about supporting and building relationships with individuals in their jail. According to MNDOC records, RCJ has more programming and a greater range of opportunities than most MN facilities, including the 67% of MN jails larger than RCJ. In 2015, RCJ won the President’s Award from the MN Corrections Association for the innovative approach in which the jail is run. For example, RCJ includes questions about ACEs at intake in order to provide tailored support to incarcerated people. Supervised contact visits between incarcerated parents and children are currently available. Parents sentenced for a non-violent crime are offered a furlough for childbirth. RCJ offers parenting classes using the Inside-Out Dad curriculum (distinct from Parenting Inside Out) and is one of a few jails with an in-house licensed chemical dependency treatment program. RCJ has partnerships with a range of organizations from faith communities to formal service providers, including the Family Services Collaborative to support limited navigator time to provide housing and employment resources.
  • Unique Priorities: RCJ will hire a community/family liaison to provide on-site coordination of parenting resources, facilitate community partnership, and establish family focused re-entry, including referrals and follow-up for children and families. RCJ will incorporate restorative justice practices and develop a policy and practice to provide caregiver education.

Stearns County Jail (SCJ)

Stearns County Jail (SCJ), located in St. Cloud, MN (56302), has a 151-bed capacity for pre and post adjusted men (75%) and women (25%). In 2019 SCJ had 6,789 admissions. The State Survey of Parents in MN Jails estimated that 56% of adults in SCJ (33% mothers, 58% fathers) were parents of minor children.

  • Current Innovation: SCJ has a strong history of community partnerships. An active Stearns County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee includes every county department and meets monthly. A ten-year partnership with early childhood education has provided adapted parenting education programming and supports for incarcerated parents. In recent years SCJ contracted with CentraCare hospital and clinics to establish a clinic in the jail staffed by providers who provide exceptional continuity of care. This helps individuals transition into the community and continue to receive clinical services, including essential mental health services. SCJ also made efforts to make family contact accessible by including mobile platforms (tablets, smart phones) in their video visitation contract, which is especially important for families in rural parts of the county.
  • Unique Priorities: SCJ will expand parent-child contact through subsidized video contact for families with children and improve intake practices. SCJ will hire a community/family liaison to coordinate work, create family focused re-entry supports, and expand community partnerships.

Contacts

Content Knowledge

Two New MNLET Courses for County Jail Staff in Minnesota

In partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health and the University of Minnesota Department of Pediatrics, the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association has created two new courses called Incarcerated Parents and Their Children. This training is a two-part series. The goal of this training is for jail staff and administrators to have a better understanding of how parental incarceration impacts children. Courses are available for all Minnesota county jail staff on Minnesota Leadership Education & Training (MNLET).

  • Part 1 of this training is focused on the basics of child development and how adversity and trauma can disrupt optimal child development.
  • Part 2 of the training highlights developmental considerations for jail staff and jail administrators. 

These eLearning courses are available at no charge for all Minnesota county jail staff on Minnesota Leadership Education & Training (MNLET) and were made possible by a grant through the Minnesota Department of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Each course is approximately 30 minutes. A certificate is available after participating in the course and successfully completing the quiz.

The instructor of this course is Dr. Rebecca Shlafer, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. Over the last decade, she has worked with numerous jails and prisons throughout the state of Minnesota to implement model policies and practices to strengthen families affected by incarceration. She was selected as a subject matter expert by the National Institute of Corrections and has served on numerous state and national committees focused on supporting incarcerated parents and their families.

Additional Resources and Related Work

For More Information

Anna Lynn, MPP

Mental Health Promotion Coordinator

Minnesota Department of Health

[email protected]

Rebecca J. Shlafer, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

University of Minnesota

[email protected]

John Eshun

Mental Wellbeing Planner

Minnesota Department of Health

[email protected]

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