The swelling jail population has captured our attention: bipartisan voices such as Senators Corey Booker and Rand Paul, Attorney General Eric Holder, Jr. and even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich call for reform.
You don’t have to be arrested to be caught in the cycle of incarceration though. Inmates are only one part of the incarceration cycle. Their children, still largely in the shadows, are the other part.
The National Family Resource Network estimates that there are at least two million children in the United States who have at least one parent in jail. That doesn’t count the close to 10 million children who have a parent who is under some form of criminal supervision such as probation or parole.
The call for change inside our prisons is long overdue, but there is a much needed call for change outside, also. The Sentencing Project counts the growing number of children with an incarcerated parent as one of the most significant collateral consequences of the record prison population in the U.S. As a transitional counselor in a school jail for incarcerated teens, I witness the end results of having a parent in jail. My students were five times more likely than their peers to commit a crime and end up in jail themselves.
According to Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Reentry, children of the incarcerated experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms and experience the same grief as a child who has lost a parent, and with good reason, too. The 2013 Sentencing Project Annual Report found that 59 percent of parents in state prisons and 45 percent in federal prisons had not had any personal visits with their children while in prison.
And children with an incarcerated parent often don’t receive bereavement support—sometimes, they receive just the opposite: teasing, bullying, or shame.
And their parents need support as well. The very problems that often sent them to jail—drugs, alcohol and mental disorders—need to be addressed so that their children aren’t at risk when they return home. The Sentencing Project calls this “a missed opportunity for intervention.”
Using time in prison to get a high school equivalency diploma, to participate in drug rehab programs or to be treated for mental illness provides hope for the families of the incarcerated. Prison families have trouble staying together, yet there is no better predictor of successful re-entry than a family who has managed just that. Unfortunately, 15 to 20 percent of these children are placed in the child welfare system and 70 percent of children whose mothers are in the system are being raised by grandparents.
In the Sesame Street Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration Tool Kit, Big Bird and Cookie Monster assure children that they can ask them anything about jail and that it’s okay to have a parent in prison. Sesame Street wants to reinforce the message that having a loved one in jail is not something to be ashamed of.
It’s difficult to offer families of the incarcerated help; they rarely identify themselves, and a child with a parent in jail looks no different from any other child but needs tremendous support.
That child needs someone advocating for them, too. Greater awareness on the part of schools, churches and libraries would help. There are over 12 million children with a parent involved in the justice system. Special book collections, greater sensitivity and more open, non-judgmental communication with the family would foster a more welcoming and secure environment for this child. She or he might not find it anywhere else.
The stark reality is this: our incarceration system is broken and needs to be fixed. It has failed to deliver justice, and it has failed to rehabilitate. Worse yet, we need to recognize that it has failed our children, too.
Marybeth Zeman is the author of Tales of a Jailhouse Librarian: Challenging the Juvenile Justice System One Book at a Time.