MADISON (WKOW) -- Researchers estimate the parents of about 1.7 million children in the United States are incarcerated in prison and millions more are in jail.
That means there has been a dramatic increase over the past 20 years, especially among incarcerated mothers.
It's affecting an estimated 1,600 children here in Dane County.
Vanessa Walls has four children, and is currently in the Dane County Jail.
"When I came to jail it was overcrowded, and I was 8.5 months pregnant. I had to sleep on the floor," Walls said of her experience at the Dane County Jail in 2000.
Disorderly conduct and drug charges landed Walls in prison four years later.
Now, she could face another prison sentence.
"I don't know what it's like to do something without someone looking behind my back, looking over my shoulder," she said.
Walls has been at the County Jail since February. She is appealing a judge's decision to revoke her probation.
But Walls isn't the only one being punished.
"It's affecting my children's lives," Walls said. "My oldest daughter is depressed. She's withdrawn a lot."
Walls' four young children are all living with other family members until she gets out.
"They just don't understand. One day I was at home with them and the next day I'm gone. I can't leave when I want to. I can't be with them."
UW-Madison Professor Julie Poehlmann says many families are facing similar struggles.
The number of kids nationwide with parents in prison jumped 180 percent between 1990 and 2007.
That is not even counting kids with parents in jail.
But these are just estimates. There is no system to keep track of these kids--not in the jails or in schools.
"It's pretty amazing how invisible the kids have been for a long time," Poehlmann said.
Children with an incarcerated mother can especially see negative effects.
"When the mom is incarcerated, most kids live with a grandparent, maybe about 10-11 percent live in foster care and only about 20 percent live with their dads."
Poehlmann said those children also have a higher risk of living in poverty, experiencing domestic violence and being incarcerated as adults.
Organizations like the Madison-area Urban Ministry are trying to do something to address these issues.
Their Mentoring Connections program finds a mentor who can be a positive role model in these childrens' lives
Mike Sweitzer-Beckman has been mentoring seven-year-old Keith Wickless for about a year and a half.
"I can remember him leaving me messages inviting me to a soccer game or his birthday party. These are the voicemail messages I love to keep and play over and over again," Sweitzer-Beckman said.
When his wife, Erica, saw how much fun they were having, she decided to mentor Sarah.
"I'm honored to be a part of Sarah's support system."
Keith and his sister, Sarah, both say they like having a mentor.
"You get to try a lot of new stuff," Keith said.
"It's just unfortunate that one of their parents is in prison, maybe for a long time and maybe they didn't get to meet that parent or they just don't have much of a relationship with that parent," Mike said.
Walls doesn't want that to be the case with her kids. She says she plans to turn her life around when she can go home.
"I'm going to get a support system that can help me, get into a church and surround myself with people that are good, that are making the right decisions."
Walls is still waiting for a decision on her appeal, hoping stay on probation instead of going to prison.
However, her attorney tells me a judge doesn't usually overturn his decision in such cases.
That means she will likely spend a year and a half in the Taycheedah Correctional Institute.
We'll tell you about a program that helps mothers returning to their families and communities after incarceration Tuesday night on 27 News at 5.