Effects of parental incarceration on their children : a study of children of incarcerated parents


Student thesis: PhD Thesis (Lingnan)


The adult prison population is estimated to have increased recently, at a rate similar to the rate at which the total world population has increased. As prison adult population increases, it can be inferred that the number of children with incarcerated parents is also on the rise. However, with lack of data and policy on these children, particularly in the Low Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), little or virtually nothing is known about these children and how they are faring after the separation of their parents from them. This study aimed at bridging this knowledge gap by examining the effects of parental incarceration on their children. To address this, the study relied on three sociological theories (strain, cumulative risk, and stigma) and one sociological concept (social support) to explore how the incarceration of parents affects the lives of their children. Using a sequential exploratory mixed method approach, the study answers the following questions: What are the difficulties children of incarcerated parents encounter during the incarceration of their parents? What social support systems are available for these children? Does the incarceration of parents affect the attitude of peers towards the children? Based on the last question, it was hypothesised that, children whose parents have been incarcerated for committing an offense will be less stigmatised compared to children with parents in different stigmatised status. To address the questions regarding the difficulties children of incarcerated parents may encounter and the availability of social support, in-depth interviews were conducted with 17 children (aged 8 to 17 years) of incarcerated parents (in four prisons in the Ashanti region of Ghana) and 10 caregivers of the children. Further, a vignette experimental study was conducted to answer the question on the attitudes of others (stigma) towards children of incarcerated parents. Children from four institutional schools in Ghana were presented with 16 scenarios with 4 manipulation variables (gender of child, incarceration status of parents, other source of stigma, and gravity of offense). The qualitative data were analysed thematically while the quantitative data were analysed using ANOVA test. Consistent with the strain and cumulative risk theories, the results of the study indicated that, incarceration of parents led to similar objective reaction of all children disliking their parents’ incarceration. However, the subjective reaction of children differed depending on their living conditions prior to their parents’ incarceration and resources available to them. Due to how most of the incarcerated parents, whether resident or non-resident, contributed significantly to the lives of their children before incarceration, their incarceration led to varying challenges in the lives of their children (ranging from children’s behavioural problems to financial difficulty, changes in residence and caregivers, relocation of siblings, school problems, and stigmatisation). Some children however were able to navigate and positively adapt to the challenges due to social support from family members, friends, and religious organisations. However, access to and utilisation of informal support by children differed, depending on their living conditions before parents’ incarceration. In line with the stigma theory, the survey experimental data provided strong evidence that the incarceration of parents led to stigmatisation of their children. Inconsistent with a hypothesis of the study, the marks or attributes children carry as children of incarcerated parents affected the attitude of others towards them.
Date of Award25 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Lingnan University
SupervisorHau Nung Annie CHAN (Supervisor) & Roman DAVID (Supervisor)

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