INCARCERATION IN AMERICA: OVERVIEW
The American criminal justice system holds more than 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 901 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 76 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, and prisons in the U.S. territories.
There are another 840,000 people on parole (a type of conditional release from prison) and 3.7 million people on probation.
Since 1970, the number of women in jail nationwide has increased 14-fold — from under 8,000 to nearly 110,000 — exponentially outpacing rates of growth for men.
CHILDREN OF INCARCERATED PARENTS
52% of state inmates and 63% of federal inmates reported having children under the age of 19.
2.7 million (or 1 in 28) children currently have a parent behind bars. (Pew Charitable Trusts)
10 million children have had a parent behind bars at one point in their lives. (Pew Charitable Trusts)
One study of parents arrested indicated that 67% were handcuffed in front of their children, 27% reported weapons drawn in front of their children, and 4.3% reported a physical struggle.
Children with an incarcerated parent may experience a host of consequences - emotional and psychological trauma of separation, increased family disintegration and/or dysfunction, residential and financial instability, developmental challenges, social stigma and emotional pain, and a greater likelihood of exposure to extreme poverty
Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to enter the criminal justice system, struggle for mental and physical health, be exposed to violence and addiction, live in poverty, and drop out of high school than children who have not experience parental incarceration.
RACIAL DISPARITIES IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
40% of incarcerated individuals are Black, even though Blacks only make up 13% of the country's population.
39% are White, event though Whites make up 64% of the country's population.
Blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stopped by the police than whites.
Of those that are stopped, Blacks and Latinos are more likely that whites to experience use of force by police.
1 in 9 Black children (11.4%), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%) and 1 in 57 White children (1.8%) have an incarcerated parent.
Black children are twice as likely as White children to experience parental incarceration.
ECONOMIC DISPARITIES IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM
Children living in poverty are more than three times as likely to have experienced the incarceration of a parent as children in families with incomes at least twice the poverty level.
Children who have no resident parent with more than a high school education are 41 percent more likely to have experienced parental incarceration than are children with at least one parent who has had some education beyond high school
Children living outside metropolitan areas are more likely to have experienced parental incarceration than those living in metropolitan areas
Psychological and Emotional Effects
Information from, "Stronger Together Vol. 1: The Experiences of Children with Incarcerated Parents" developed by the Osborne Association and the New York Initiative for Children with Incarcerated Parents, NYC
FEAR, ANXIETY AND WORRY
The sudden disappearance of a parent is a terrifying experience. “Separation anxiety”—a developmental stage during which a child experiences anxiety/fear when separated from the primary caregiver—is a common response for children whose parent becomes incarcerated. Children may worry that other important people in their lives will disappear, worry about the disappeared parent, or fear for their own safety.
Separation anxiety may manifest itself in nightmares, reluctance to go to daycare or school, resistance to staying alone/without a parent or guardian, or clinging behavior to a person, animal or object.
SADNESS AND ISOLATION
Children separated from their parents have a tendency to feel abandoned. A child whose parent is incarcerated in most cases misses the parent. They may develop a personal explanation for why the parent is missing, often blaming themselves. This self-blame can lead to children questioning their own self-worth and whether they are lovable. Children may believe if their parents really loved them, they would have found a way not to be arrested or incarcerated.
Children can be intolerant of differences, and peers may tease a child about their missing or incarcerated parent. Other peers (and adults) may not know what to say to a child about their new situation and avoid contact with the child out of their own discomfort. Children may also feel isolated by normal activities around them such as school events attended by other children’s parents, or school assignments such as interviewing a parent about their family tree or having a “bring your parent to school” day.
The child may be angry at the parent for abandoning her, or at the other parent or family members. Often the child’s anger is expressed at the remaining parent or caregiver, or against teachers or other adults. Children can also feel a more abstract anger at what is happening, at authorities, at “the system,” or at the world. They may have witnessed an arrest and be angry at the police. They may feel angry that other children have their parents at home and they don’t. They may feel angry at the sentencing judge, the correctional officers, or others.
Children experiencing anger as a result of the incarceration of a loved one can manifest various behaviors that can be perceived as anger, but are mostly coming from a place of hurt and sadness. When children are observed to be getting in trouble, “rebelling” or not listening, being “delinquent,” or behaving differently, a signal is being sent to us that attention and understanding are needed.
Children often feel they are to blame for the bad things that happen to their loved ones. A child may feel that their parent’s incarceration is a result of something they did or said. For example, a child may think, “If I hadn’t always been bothering my mom, she wouldn’t have been stressed out and gone back to drugs,” or “Maybe if I hadn’t kept asking for a new bike, my dad wouldn’t have stolen that money.”
During a parent’s incarceration, children can also experience another form of guilt: that associated with being on the “outside” and living life while their parent remains locked “inside.” Children can feel guilty for enjoying events and milestones that their parent cannot and may even put off certain milestones (such as graduations and trips) so that they can hopefully experience these when their parent comes home.
STIGMA & SHAME
The stigma experienced by the families of those who commit crimes is real and it is painful. Children may nd themselves subject to taunts, isolation or other rejecting behavior by peers and adults.
A child whose parent is incarcerated often feels torn between their emotions. Taunts and rejection by others put this cauldron of emotion under intense pressure. Children in this situation can experience anger at those who criticize their incarcerated parent and may be moved to aggression in defense of the parent. They may also feel intense shame about the parent and move to reject and disavow their parent. Many children feel a combination of these emotions, although one feeling may be stronger at a particular time.
While children who are separated from a parent through death or divorce can find solace and support outside the family in friends, relatives or teachers, children who have a parent in prison may feel unable to seek out such support for fear of rejection. This may be especially so for children of parents whose crimes are “white collar,” sex offenses, crimes against children, or high profile crimes. The language that caretakers and professionals use can unintentionally increase the isolation and stigma children experience. Frequently used terms such as “convict,” “offender,” and “inmate” (among others) to refer to a child’s mom or dad can add to the stigma and shame they feel, and further isolate them. It is more helpful to use "parents who are incarcerated" and "formerly incarcerated parent/person/individual", all of which recognize the humanity and parental role of the person who is in prison.
CONFUSION ABOUT VALUES
Incarceration represents a serious challenge to the child’s identity formation process. While a child may have heard from their parents about proper behavior and attitude, criminal activity on the part of the parent sends the child powerful, contradictory, and confusing messages. “Do as I say, not as I do,” is not an effective parenting technique, as children are looking to their parents to model the values and behavior expected.
When parents can take responsibility for their actions, acknowledge poor choices, and attempt to make amends for the harm done, this can be very powerful for children. Family members and professionals can assist children in connecting with positive aspects of their parents, helping the children see themselves in certain aspects of the parent but not in others. This will help to create a future identity that includes their parent’s strengths, but does not include their parent’s criminal activity.
CONFUSION ABOUT ROLES
A frequent consequence of incarceration is that a child may be moved to occupy the place or role left vacant by the incarcerated parent. A child may be forced to become the “man or woman of the house,” to parent their siblings, provide advice to children or other adults in the family, and sometimes even become an economic provider for the family. While children may want to help out during this time, family members and professionals working with families should be mindful that these are usually roles too big to fill and children should be protected from assuming responsibilities beyond their age-appropriate means. It is important to try to protect children and to allow them to remain children through this difficult time.
RESENTMENT ABOUT DECEPTION
As a result of the stigma, families faced with the reality of incarceration often try to hide the fact that they have a loved one in prison. Frequently used “cover up stories” include telling children their parents are away at school, in the military, working out of state, or in the hospital.
Children are remarkably perceptive about what is going on around them. Instead of protecting the child from hurtful knowledge of the truth, deception tends to make the child feel more anxious, helpless, and isolated. In a household where the truth cannot be discussed, the child can become obsessed with thinking about the parent who has left. Children may come to believe that if adults are not telling them the truth, then the truth may be even more unbearably awful than previously thought.
Nowadays it is possible for children to find out all about their parents through the Internet. Websites of corrections agencies generally include information about the whereabouts, criminal charges, sentence length and possible or anticipated release dates for people in their custody. A child who has been told a false story about his missing parent has no outlet for their anger, frustration, confusion and grief. How can they express his feelings to the adults around them when they aren't supposed to know the story? If they are not being told the truth about their parent, how can they trust that anything they are told is truthful? Children from whom the facts have been withheld are likely to resent those who deceived them when they find out the truth—as they almost always do.
For all of these reasons, a “truth fit to tell”—one that is developmentally appropriate—is what is best for children. What is told, how it is told, with what degree of detail, in what sequence, in how many conversations, are all important, as are the subtle nuances that take into account the developmental readiness of the child, the family style of communication, and the values of the community.
02. Criminal Justice System Stress Points
The trauma experienced by the child who has a parent taken from him is extraordinary, even more so if the child witnesses the arrest of the parent. The image of the person you love, respect, and depend on being handcuffed and forcibly taken away is devastating; even for children who do not witness the arrest, the image can be terrifying. The arrest experience, plus the negative images portrayed by the media, can exacerbate a child’s fear and lead the child to envision the worst about the parent’s condition. Usually, neither families nor children have information about the arrest, arraignment and detention process, and children may worry about how, when and if they will ever see their mother or father again. A parent’s arrest is much more common than a parent’s incarceration, since most arrests do not actually lead to jail or prison sentences. Those who work with children should be mindful that parental arrest is not an uncommon experience for children, particularly in neighborhoods that are heavily policed, where young men are frequently stopped and frisked, often leading to arrests that lead to at least 2-3 days in custody. During much of this time, no one knows exactly where the parent is, or what is happening.
PRE-TRIAL AND DURING TRIAL
The arrested parent may be detained during the pre-trial period or may be released on bail. In either case, it is a period of great uncertainty, when making plans is impossible since the outcomes are unpredictable. The child whose world has been suddenly disrupted is often unable to get answers to her questions, and does not know what is expected of her during this time of distress. It is often upsetting for children that the adults in their lives — whom they perceived as “all-knowing” and “all-powerful”—appear to be helpless and clueless.
For the child and other family members, a prison sentence usually comes as a shock. Since family members are rarely considered when a sentence is imposed, and typically have little information or control at the sentencing phase, family members may neglect to discuss what might happen with children. This can leave children alone with their fears, struggles and changing feelings about what is happening. Even when the sentence is as expected, the sentence makes the fears around separation a reality for families, and the image of a steel door closing behind them can be very real for children. Complicating this further is that the sentencing phase can also extend for months, which is an eternity for children. During this time, the parent is often in a jail where visiting may be difficult or severely limited compared to prison.
For the child and other family members, the set of emotions experienced during incarceration is often compared to the loss of a family member to death. This metaphor does not take into consideration how shame, stigma and humiliation about prison life affect the child, nor the complicated, ambiguous and un-defined nature of this deep loss. Children are aware of the gravity of the situation and may conjure up negative visions of what life in prison is like. These images can be influenced by negative images of prison life in the media and on TV shows - even in cartoons. Further complications occur when the remaining parent or caregiver is reluctant to allow children to visit a prison, whether to “protect” the child from further harm and distress or to punish the incarcerated individual by withholding love and visits.
For people who do not have a definite release date, the time leading up to a parole hearing can be very stressful for children who are aware of what is happening. Many children want to know what they can do to help their parent “get out.” Some children also worry that their parent will “mess up” or do something that will cause the Parole Board to deny their release. The hopefulness and anxiety around this time has a big impact on family members and children. If the parole board’s decision is positive, it can be a time of extreme joy and celebration. If parole is denied, it is likely to be accompanied by anger, frustration, sadness and despair. Particularly as adult members process the news, they may be coping with their own feelings and not have much reserve left to be there to help children understand. There is a grieving process that can occur after a parole denial, with various stages of feelings taking place (anger, sadness, acceptance). Some children are angry with their parent, some with the “system,” and some lose respect for the law when they feel their parent has done everything possible to demonstrate rehabilitation and yet still will not be released. This is a trauma that is often invisible to those outside of the family, and that serves to increase children’s feelings of isolation.
Children whose parents are under parole supervision may be unaware of their parent’s status or reporting requirements, which can place limitations on a parent’s ability to fully parent. Parents may be limited by curfew and geographic restrictions that may prohibit them from taking their children places or participating in certain activities with them.
PRE-RELEASE AND REENTRY
The times just before and after release can be the most challenging for children and families. Problems that were present in the household before the incarceration are typically not dealt with while the individual is away and may greet everyone upon return. Children and families change during a parent’s incarceration: children grow older and are at a different stage of development and need different things from their parents. They have also had to adapt and learn to cope day to day without the parent’s presence and accessible guidance/involvement. Incarcerated parents may think of and parent the children at the age they were prior to the incarceration, and may continue to treat them that way unconsciously as they plan to resume parenting in the community.
The other custodial parent has also likely changed. In two-parent families, the parent left behind has gained independence and competence in areas previously handled by the partner. There may be considerable tension about how the marital/committed relationship can go forward.
The incarcerated parent has also changed. They have been living in a place where one suffers a loss of identity and respect, where anger and hostility are common, and where there is no privacy. They may have been forbidden to act on feelings or make any decisions regarding personal preferences. And the world they are returning to has changed significantly, particularly if the sentence was long (imagine going to prison in 1990 and returning in 2010!). Some people come home from prison having never seen a mobile phone, surfed the Internet, or paid $4 for a cup of coffee. Their children seem to have more to teach them than to learn from them.
For families formed during incarceration—children born or step families created—the adjustment is significant, having never experienced daily family life together in the community. Finally, the expectations are high for parents coming home; they are expected to make up for the time that they spent away from their children and families, but this is a debt that cannot be repaid easily.
Despite the need for support at this time, there is little support or transitional counseling available to families to help them through this difficult time. The assumption that the hard times are over when incarceration ends can make the serious challenges families face upon reentry come as a rude and often painful awakening. This can be isolating, as those surrounding the family may also assume their difficulties are over and not offer support. While the reunion may be happy, many children and families report tremendous challenges and stress during the period of reentry, particularly if the separation has been very long.