By Melanie Wilmoth Navarro
When we talk about mass incarceration in the United States, we often focus on the problematic effect it has on those who are imprisoned within the system. But the consequences of mass incarceration reach far beyond the 2.3 million Americans who are currently behind bars. When one person is sent to prison, that person and everyone in his or her social world — parents, siblings, spouses, kids — feel the impact.
When children lose a parent to incarceration, the results can be devastating.
According to a recent report by Sadhbh Walshe of The Guardian, there are currently 10 million children in the United States with a parent who has been in prison or on parole or probation. The majority of these children are children of color. Among black children, 1 in 5 has a parent in prison. By contrast, only 1 in 111 white children has an incarcerated parent. As a result, mass incarceration has become one of the primary forces driving unequal outcomes for poor children of color. As Walshe points out:
“These children are often deeply traumatized by the experience. Their school work suffers, they can become emotionally withdrawn or aggressively act out. The negative consequences tend to be exacerbated if they are unable to maintain meaningful contact with the parent they love while he or she is in prison.”
A report by the Sentencing Project revealed that kids of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, have disciplinary problems, and become incarcerated themselves. Moreover, these children often lose contact with their incarcerated parents. As of 2004, 59% of state inmates and 45% of federal inmates had never been visited by their children. More than half of all prisoners in the U.S. are located 100-500 miles away from their homes. This distance only makes visitation more difficult for the families of prisoners.
To reduce negative impacts on children, the Sentencing Project suggests prison programs that promote parent-child bonding, reentry assistance, and sentencing reforms that revise “tough on crime” policies that leave people locked up for excessive periods of time. Placing prisoners closer to home and implementing better visitation policies would also help.
However, Walshe makes a great point: “Unless we stop using incarceration as a one-stop shop for all social ills, stop being “tough on crime” and start being tough on the causes of crime, it’s impossible to see how this cycle of despair will ever end.”