Incarceration and Children

The problems of America’s prison system are extensive and diverse. Prisons are overcrowded and expensive. The justice system disproportionately locks up black and brown Americans from poor communities. America’s prisons are filled with down-on-their-luck veterans, drug addicts, mental health patients, and repeat offenders incapable of finding work with a criminal record. The bulk of America’s 2.3 million prisoners are locked up for non-violent crimes, and once released from prison more than half return within the next three years. Real rehabilitation programs are few and far between, and prison-to-work programs are even less common. 

It is clear that America’s criminal justice system produces too many prisoners. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow and several think tank reports all offer quantitative and qualitative analyses of the situation. Yet very little research has been done on one of the most tragic aspects of America’s prison problem: the lives of children with incarcerated parents. 

In the 1970s there were about 350,000 minors with a parent in prison. Today, there are 2.7 million. Of those 2.7 million kids, many follow in their parents footsteps. According to a paper published by the US Department of Justice in 2010, 79,165 youths were labeled criminals and held in one of Americas 2,259 juvenile detention facilities. Of those 79,165 kids, there were 12,000 whose “most serious offense” was a technical, not criminal, violation of the requirements of their probation or parole. Another 3,000 are behind bars for “status” offenses, which are, as the U.S. Department of Justice explains, “behaviors that are not law violations for adults, such as running away, truancy, and incorrigibility.” The saddest part of this story is that the childhood jailing is mostly occurring in America’s poorest areas. Children who grow up in Greenwich, Connecticut are far less likely to receive jail time and a criminal record for trying marijuana, driving too fast, or refusing to go to school. 

For the 2.7 million children with a parent behind bars, life is immeasurably difficult. Children with incarcerated parents are far more likely than their peers to grow up homeless. Homelessness immediately disadvantages children, making it difficult for them to do well in school, receive adequate health care, make friends, and enjoy their childhood. On top of likely homelessness, the child experiences familial instability and is highly likely to live in poverty. 

Probably in good part because of their home situation, a 2011 report by Justice Strategies found that “45% of children with incarcerated parents had failing grades, compared with 20% of a their peers whose parents weren’t in prison.” Teachers are often wholly unaware of their students’ situation. Schools are not aware of a child’s parent’s arrest or incarceration unless the child or someone else lets them know. 

There is also a serious stigma of having an incarcerated parent. One report notes that the children of incarcerated parents “often end up in foster care and have difficulties in school forming attachments with their peers.” To make matters worse, children grow up angry at their parent for “leaving them,” and that anger often manifests itself in rebellious teenage behavior. As the authors of the study assert, much more research needs to be done to understand the full breadth of the psychological consequences of parental incarceration.

A review entitled “Making a Better World for Children of Incarcerated Parents” by Professor of Law Myrna S. Raeder outlines how millions of children are at risk “not only for continuing an intergenerational cycle of crime, but also for entering the pipeline that extends from foster care, to school failure, homelessness, unemployability, poverty, and institutionalization.”

Raeder cites several studies and surveys that correlate parental incarceration with incidents of sexual and physical abuse as well as neglect. Those same children face early exposure to their parent’s mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, or other types of parental abuse or neglect within their household. Children are suffering from the “sins” of their fathers and mothers and from the flaws of America’s current mass incarceration system, and their suffering is for the most part invisible to the rest of the public. The invisibility is in part due to the demographics of incarceration. Children with incarcerated parents tend to be surrounded by other children in similar situations, but communities free from the cycle of crime feel little effect. It is shameful that the American public neglects this as an issue. If we are serious about promoting and protecting family values, we can begin by acknowledging that children are bearing the burden of America’s prison problem.