• Parent;
  • prison;
  • intergenerational;
  • crime;
  • antisocial behaviour

Background:  Prisoners’ children appear to suffer profound psychosocial difficulties during their parents’ imprisonment. However, no previous study has examined later-life outcomes for prisoners’ children compared to children separated from parents for other reasons. We hypothesise that parental imprisonment predicts boys’ antisocial and delinquent behaviour partly because of the trauma of separation, partly because parental imprisonment is a marker for parental criminality, and partly because of childhood risks associated with parental imprisonment.

Method:  This study uses prospective longitudinal data from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development (CSDD). The CSDD includes data on 411 Inner London males and their parents. We compare boys separated by parental imprisonment during their first 10 years of life with four control groups: boys who did not experience separation, boys separated by hospital or death, boys separated for other reasons (usually disharmony), and boys whose parents were only imprisoned before their birth. Individual, parenting, and family risk factors for delinquency were measured when boys were aged 8–11. Eleven antisocial and delinquent outcomes were assessed between ages 14 and 40.

Results:  Separation because of parental imprisonment predicted all antisocial–delinquent outcomes compared to the four control conditions. Separation caused by parental imprisonment was also strongly associated with many other childhood risk factors for delinquency. After controlling for parental convictions and other childhood risk factors, separation caused by parental imprisonment still predicted several antisocial–delinquent outcomes, even up to age 32, compared with other types of separation.

Conclusions:  Prisoners’ children are a highly vulnerable group with multiple risk factors for adverse outcomes. Parental imprisonment appears to affect children over and above separation experiences and associated risks. Further research on possible moderating and mediating factors such as stigma, reduction in family income and reduced quality of care is required to identify the mechanisms by which parental imprisonment affects children.