The Father Factor

The Latest Data on Incarcerated Dads and Their Children Might Shock You

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Aug 24, 2021


If I asked you to estimate the number of incarcerated dads in federal and state prisons, what estimate would you give me?

And if I asked you to estimate the number of their minor children, what estimate would you give me?

Cat got your tongue?

You might be surprised to learn that industrious cat would also have my tongue. After all, National Fatherhood Initiative® (NFI) has the nation’s leading fatherhood program for incarcerated fathers, InsideOut Dad®, and I am one of our primary trainers on that program. Shouldn’t I know the answers to those two questions?

The challenge in answering both questions for you or me isn’t that the data don’t exist. It’s that the data have until recently been very out of date.

Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) published new data that show how vital it is that we help incarcerated dads for a multitude of reasons that include:

  • Improving their children’s well-being
  • Supporting the role of their children’s mothers (or other main caregivers) in raising their children
  • Reducing the risk of incarcerated dads’ recidivism
  • Breaking the intergenerational cycle of incarceration
  • Creating healthier communities (e.g. healthier children, healthier parents, and reduced crime)

The Data

In Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children, published in March 2021, USDOJ reports that in 2016:

  • 684,500 prisoners in federal and state prisoners had at least one minor child
  • Incarcerated parents had nearly 1.5 million children combined (1,473,700)
  • A higher proportion of incarcerated women (58 percent) than incarcerated men (47 percent) were parents

What the report didn’t mention, however, is that the vast majority of parents in prison are dads. Why not? Who knows?

But the data in the report make it easy to calculate that 91.6 percent of incarcerated parents are dads.


The data also make it easy to calculate that 77 percent of the nearly 1.5 million children of incarcerated parents were children of incarcerated dads.

Double wow.

The Need for Father-Specific Programs and Resources

Now that you know that 9 of every 10 incarcerated parents are dads and that nearly 8 of every 10 children of an incarcerated parent have an incarcerated dad, doesn’t that present a compelling argument for getting fatherhood programs and father-specific resources into America’s prisons?

You bet it does.

Fortunately, NFI has worked tirelessly to partner with corrections systems at the federal, state, and local levels (and with community-based organizations that work in corrections and reentry facilities) to implement our evidence-based InsideOut Dad® program and our other corrections-focused resources.*  Independent evaluations of InsideOut Dad® have shown that it:

  • Improves pro-fathering awareness, knowledge, and skills
  • Increases dad-child contact
  • Reduces the risk of recidivism (especially when combined with other cognitive-behavioral programs)
  • Reduces behavioral infractions (i.e. improves the prison environment)

Moreover, qualitative data from InsideOut Dad® facilitators and dads who have participated in the program reveal that it improves the relationships between prison staff—many of whom are facilitators of the program—and incarcerated dads.

This need for father-specific programs and resources doesn’t minimize the need to help incarcerated moms and their children. We have mother-specific programs and resources that can help those moms improve the relationships they have with the fathers of their children. Many of our corrections partners use them.

By helping incarcerated dads and moms to be the best parents they can be while in prison and after release, you’ll help a significant proportion of the 1.8 million incarcerated individuals in the U.S. to succeed in the most important role they’ll ever fill.**

How much do you know about the importance of helping the nearly 630,000 incarcerated dads to be the best dads possible?

Are you interested in learning even more about the characteristics of incarcerated dads and their minor children? If so, I encourage you to read the report for a breakdown of these dads including by race and the ages of their children.

*NFI published the first edition of InsideOut Dad® in 2005. Prisons and jails in 49 states, the District of Columbia, and several other countries (e.g. Australia, Canada, Ireland, England, and Norway) have implemented it.

**Because the USDOJ data reflect the state of the prison population in 2016 and the size of the overall prison population has fallen to 1.8 million from a peak of 2.3 million in 2008—with a drop of 14 percent from 2019 to 2020 alone—it’s clear that the total number of incarcerated dads in prison has fallen and highly likely that the total of their combined children has fallen, too. But the proportion of all parents in prison who are dads--and the proportion of children whose incarcerated parents are dads--probably hasn’t fallen much if at all. The proportion of parents in prison who are dads has remained steady for many years. Indeed, 91.8 percent of parents in prison in 2007 were dads.

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Topics: Featured, NFI-Specific Programs & Resources, General Fatherhood Research & Studies, InsideOut Dad®, Corrections & Reentry

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