The department's Bureau of Justice Statistics said that at the end of last year 1,498,800 children under age 18 had a parent in prison in this country.
That was a 60 percent increase since 1991 -- up 562,300 from the 936,500 children in that category then. During the same interval, the nation's prison population grew by an almost identical 62 percent, to 1,284,894 prisoners in 1999.
The 1999 prison population contained 721,500 inmates who were parents of a minor child. The percentage of prisoners with children was essentially unchanged -- 57 percent in 1991 and 56 percent in 1999.
A majority of the children with imprisoned parents, 58 percent, was younger than 10 years old, and the average age was 8 years old. As of Dec. 31, 1999, they represented 2.1 percent of the nation's 72 million minor children.
Federal inmates had more contact with their children than did state inmates, according to the bureau's 1997 survey of state and federal inmates.
Among state inmates, 40 percent of the imprisoned fathers and 60 percent of the mothers reported weekly or more frequent contact with their children by phone, mail or visit. At federal prisons, 60 percent of fathers and 70 percent of mothers had such contact weekly or more often.
But a majority of state inmates -- 57 percent of fathers and 54 percent of mothers -- reported never having had a personal visit with their children since being locked up. Among federal inmates, 44 percent of fathers and 42 percent of mothers reported no visits with children after incarceration.
As of 1997, a majority of all inmates -- 62 percent of state prisoners and 84 percent of federal ones -- were held more than 100 miles from their last place of residence. But far more state inmates, 17 percent, than federal prisoners, 7 percent, were housed within 50 miles of their last home.
Like the overall inmate population, imprisoned parents were overwhelmingly male, 93 percent, and predominantly held in state prisons, 89 percent, rather than in federal ones, 11 percent.
More than 80 percent of all inmate parents reported having a child now living with the child's other parent; about 20 percent said grandparents or other relatives were caring for a child of theirs and 2 percent had a child in a foster home or institution. The total exceeds 100 percent because some inmates had more than one child, with different custodians.
Male inmate parents -- 90 percent of those in state prisons and 92 of federal prisoners -- were more likely to report a child living with the other parent. Only 28 percent of female state prisoners and 31 percent of female federal inmates reported a child living in the care of the child's father.
Prior to imprisonment, fewer than half, 46 percent, of all inmate parents reported living with any of their minor children. In state prisons, 45 percent said they had been living with at least one of their children, compared to 57 percent of parents in federal prisons.