At their dad’s urgings, I met a teenager and his sister for lunch to stress the importance of education.
Their dad for years had been among black men who have invited me to prisons in Missouri and Kansas to talk on the topic and the crying need the black community and children have for those men — when released — to become a positive influence. Like other kids whose parents are incarcerated, the siblings talked of staying in touch with their dad and how they’ve struggled without him.
That also was the focus of a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation report, “A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration on Kids, Families and Communities.”
“Incarceration breaks up families, the building blocks of our communities and nation,” the report says. “It creates an unstable environment for kids that can have lasting effects on their development and well-being.”
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The unprecedented growth in the U.S. prison population in the last 40 years has also resulted in more kids and communities — particularly in low-income and communities of color — suffering with incarcerated parents.
“From 1980 to 2000, the number of kids with a father in prison or jail rose by 500 percent,” the report said. More than 5 million kids have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. In Missouri, 7 percent of its kids, or 98,000, have had a parent in jail or prison at some point. In Kansas it’s 6 percent, or 45,000 kids.
The report correctly notes the “wildly disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color, especially African American men, who are far more likely to be arrested and spend time behind bars.”
“As a result, children of color are inevitably more likely to contend with having a parent in prison,” the report says. Families and children suffer lost connections, jobs, income, homes and hope. “Communities, in turn, suffer from losing so many parents, whose absence leaves the economic and social fabric of their neighborhoods in tatters.”
I saw the effects last year at Paseo Academy, where I studied with Carol Charismas’ seventh-graders. One girl struggled with her studies and misbehaved in class until her father got out of prison and visited the school and Charismas. The girl was a better student afterward.
“Incarceration is a destabilizer, pushing families teetering on the edge into financial disaster,” the report says.
There is the loss of income, and then the drain that the court fight creates. Mothers are left unable to pay for food, utilities, housing and medical care for children. Kids of incarcerated parents move more frequently and are at a greater risk of homelessness, further destabilizing their lives and a chance for a good education.
The report’s recommendations include reducing the nation’s reliance on incarceration through shorter sentences, and alternatives to jail and prison for nonviolent offenders. Mental health counseling should be put in place to promote healthy child and family development for ex-offenders and their kids.
Cities and states also should do more to preserve children’s relationship with the incarcerated parent. “It also benefits society, reducing children’s mental health issues and anxiety, while lowering recidivism and facilitating parents’ successful return to their communities,” the report said.
Judges and others in the judicial system should keep children in mind when sentencing occurs. Visitation policies also should strive to maintain parental relationships with “family friendly visiting centers” and even include videoconferencing.
“Without a doubt, people who break the law should face the consequences,” the report concludes. But because kids end up sharing the adults’ sentences, the “confinement of a parent should not doom a child to a lifetime of closed doors.”
Making that possible will take time and a lot of work.