Tennessee Ranks High in Outrageous Number of Children with Incarcerated Parent(s)

I know too many children with at least one incarcerated parent. And, unfortunately, Nashville schools are teeming with children living in situations with one or both parents in jail or prison. While MNPS has yet to capture the data identifying the number of children affected, I am told the issue is on the district’s radar. Until then, organizations like Free Hearts is determined to do something about it.

Walking the Walk

Free Hearts executive director Dawn Harrington 

Free Hearts provides education, support, and advocacy to incarcerated moms and children of incarcerated parents. According to Free Hearts executive director Dawn Harrington, Tennessee is one of the leaders in the nation with an inflated number of children with incarcerated parents.


Tennessee’s prison system is doing a great job of meeting and exceeding bed fulfillment projections, doing so at the expense of whole families and communities, particularly those of color. For this reason, Free Hearts is leading a unique effort to stop the bleeding by lobbying state legislators to change sentencing guidelines for primary caretakers.

Primary Caretaker Bill

House Composite Images 2009  106th Session
Rep. Brenda Gilmore

Representative Brenda Gilmore (D) recently sponsored the Primary Caretaker Legislation (HB 825) requiring courts to sentence non-violent offenders who are primary caretakers of children under the age of 18 to case-by-case assessed community rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. Co-sponsoring the family-oriented legislation (SB 919) is Republican Rep. Steve Dickerson.


The subtext of this legislation is the importance of family structure in the life of a child. The impact of sudden displacement and loss of support are tough issues to overcome for children. Further, the bill shines a light on sentencing/incarceration disparities from federal to local.

According to Metro Social Services, approximately 10 million children in the United States have experience with one or both parents in jail. Furthermore, black children are 7.5 times more likely than white children to be saddled with this reality. Locally, Nashville/Davidson County has the second largest jail population in the state and has a majority-minority student population exceeding 75% poverty. These two data points are in no way mutually exclusive.

Please take in the information below as provided by Free Hearts:


Ready to Help?

We know children need their parents, even moms and dads who make grand mistakes. We also know thoughtful reform and community service is a win-win as opposed to the exorbitant costs (both financial and social/emotional) of incarceration. This legislation is as much about community impact as it is about the trajectory of children’s lives. So we are looking for a few good people to help spread the word and reach out to legislators on behalf of these children and this community.

It is my belief that children should be exempt from partisanship politics. We need to fight for all children at all costs, and entering the battlefield for moms and dads, even low-level offending parents, must be part of the battle plan.

Please help our children by working with the good people at Free Hearts to push this legislation into law by emailing dawn@kidsofincarceratedmoms.com or call/email our legislators directly.

Click here to find your legislator by inputting your address.

State House directory

State Senate directory

Taken from Metro Social Services’ report: The Challenges of Children with Incarcerated Parents

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