In 2006, more than 2.2 men and women were in American federal, state and local jails
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Up to 10 million American children suffer
the consequences of convicted parents
By Tony Favro, USA Editor
17 March 2007: The United States has the largest prison population in the Western world. In 2006, over 2.2 million men and women were in American federal, state, and local prisons and jails. Since 1970, the rate of imprisonment in the US has risen over 400 per cent, and the average length of prison sentences has grown substantially. These increases are primarily the result of mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, long and mandatory sentences for third-felony convictions, and other ‘zero-tolerance’ polices which automatically and severely punish individuals for a variety of infractions. Whatever effect these ‘get-tough’ measures have had on crime, unintended victims have been punished along the way. These victims are children, separated from their parents and the cities in which most of these children live.
In 2000, state and federal prisoners were the parents of at least 1.5 million children under age 18, or about two per cent of all children in the US. Ex-prisoners increase the numbers to up to 10 million children directly affected by the incarceration of a parent. Many more children have an incarcerated sibling or close relative.
African-American children are much more likely to have an incarcerated parent. Seven per cent of all Black children in the United States have a parent who is currently incarcerated, compared with fewer that one percent of white children.
Prisoners’ children are young: about one in five is under age five, and most are under age 10. The average sentence length for inmates in state and federal prisons is 12 and 10 years, respectively. Therefore, most prisoners’ children were separated from their parents at an early age and will remain separated for a considerable length of time.
Most inmates with children are in prisons located at least 100 miles from their former homes, making personal visits costly and difficult. And most inmates with children are from central cities. The American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that has been working to improve conditions in American prisons for decades, estimates that between 50 and 75 per cent of the population in poor neighborhoods of American cities are related to someone who is or has been imprisoned.
The most obvious and measurable impact of a parent’s incarceration on their children is the financial strain it causes. Over 70 per cent of prison inmates with children reported they were working in the month prior to their arrest. Incarceration forcibly removes this income, and children inevitably feel the effects. For example, one-third of poor fathers who do not pay their child support in the US are in prison. Moreover, because felon drug offenders are prohibited from receiving welfare and other forms of public subsidies due to federal and state “get-tough” laws, many imprisoned parents face economic hardship upon their release.
Studies by sociologist Ariela Lowenstein and others have shown that separation due to imprisonment produces stronger adverse effects on children than other reasons for parent-child separation. Juvenile delinquency, aggression, fear, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, guilt, low self-esteem, depression, poor academic performance, and emotional withdrawal are the most commonly cited deleterious outcomes among children of prisoners. Moreover, children in communities where incarceration is common often think it is a normal life occurrence.
Not surprisingly, then, children of prisoners are about six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated at same point in their lives. One of every ten of these children will be confined in a correctional facility during his or her youth. Of all juveniles currently in correctional institutions, half have at least one parent who is or has been in prison.
Programs to help children
Most of the crimes committed by offenders who are children of prisoners occur in the cities where they live. Historically, however, children of incarcerated parents have existed within a policy and program vacuum. Family relationships are usually not considered in arrest, sentencing, and incarceration. Police, criminal justice personnel, sentencing judges, and correctional agencies rarely ask whether suspects and prisoners have children. Child welfare and social service agencies often don’t understand or take into account issues related to imprisonment. Thus, the special needs of parents, children, and families are ignored in most cases.
In recent years, President George W. Bush has helped elevate an awareness of the needs of prisoners’ children in both the public and private sectors. In 2001, the Bush administration proposed then-record federal spending of US $45 million over three years to address this high-risk population. The 2007 US federal budget includes about $50 million, the same amount as in 2006.
These federal funds do not go directly to cities where most prisoners’ children live. The funds are available exclusively to organizations that provide both community-based and faith-based mentoring for children of prisoners. Accordingly, many US cities have partnered with nonprofits to help these children.
Most community outreach programs in US cities can broadly be divided into three categories:
Counseling and mentoring: A variety of counseling programs exist that provide emotional assistance for children of incarcerated parents. Many of these initiatives are based on the Amachi Mentoring Program, which has been at the forefront of providing mentoring to children of prisoners since its inception in 2000 under the guidance of former Philadelphia Mayor, W. Wilson Goode. Amachi recruits members of the faith community to serve as adult role models for prisoners’ children.
Amachi-inspired programs currently exist in 120 US cities from Anchorage, Alaska to Jacksonville, Florida. An estimated 30,000 known children of prisoners are being served.
Academic support: About 30 per cent of all federally-funded mentoring programs are located in public schools. A number of academic programs are specifically designed to give children of prisoners supplemental help with their schoolwork. One intensive program is the Capital Area Head Start in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Head State is a national federally-funded preschool program for low-income children. The Harrisburg program provides a full-time Head Start for children ages 3 to 5 of mothers who are incarcerated or have been incarcerated. The largest single in-school program is run by the nonprofit Big Brothers Big Sisters in over 120 school districts across the US.
Facilitating contact: A number of programs seek to connect imprisoned parents with their children. One such national program, Girl Scouts Behind Bars, provides life skills training, transportation, and visitation for daughters of incarcerated mothers. Girl Scouts Behind Bars now involves about 800 girls and mothers in 80 cities such as Austin, Texas and Baltimore, Maryland. Other programs provide on-site services for children once they arrive at the prison. The Children’s Center at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, funded in part by the City of New York, has a playroom, nursery, and infant daycare for inmates’ children. The nonprofit Families with a Future organization offers support groups for children in Berkeley and San Francisco, California, whose parents are incarcerated, during which time children are given a place to express their feelings.
Many programs exist to help prisoners’ children in the US. However, they only reach a small percentage of those in need. And it’s unclear whether these programs actually improve the lives of children. Current research does not make a definitive answer possible. Most programs have been in operation only a few years or less, so not enough time has elapsed to thoroughly evaluate them. The Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners, created by the US government in 2001, is monitoring and evaluating current programs and is expected to offer a clearer picture of what strategies work in the future.
What is clear at the moment is that the number of children of once-incarcerated parents is growing. As many as 10 million American children, or 14 per cent of all children in the US under age 18, have had an incarcerated parent at least once during their childhood. Most of this growing population lives in poor urban neighborhoods, where their particular needs compound the stress on families and cities already struggling with poverty, discrimination, social instability, and violence.
Unless otherwise noted, all data in this article on prisons and prisoners are from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
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