1 in 6: Parental Incarceration

It’s a cold February morning. You wake up,
excited and bound out of bed. You wake up your little brother, and run to your mom’s
room, leaping on to the bed bouncing eagerly as she stirs opening her eyes to look at you. “It’s today! It’s today!” you cry
excitedly. It’s finally here. After what feels like an eternity, you put
on your winter coat and boots, helping your little brother with his, and pile into the
1998 honda civic. It rumbles unconvincingly to a start, and your mom blasts the heater
to defrost the windows. Then she drives. And drives. And drives some
more. Hours later, you see it in the distance. It’s
pretty big and scary looking, fences high with barbed wire that seem more meant to keep
people out than in. Your mother parks the car, and you excitedly
jump out. Once you get inside the complex, you realize it’s a hard and cold and unwelcoming
place. Your mother tells you you’re going to have to wait for a while before it’s
your turn. So you wait. And wait. And wait some more. And eventually it happens. But it’s nothing
like you imagined. Instead of running to your daddy and having him scoop you into his arms
and spin you around like he always does at home, your mom holds your hand tightly as
your daddy is escorted to you by a guard. You’re told you can give your dad a quick
hug and a kiss before you sit on a chair across from him. The hug is too short and you’re
left wanting more. Your daddy looks worn and tired. But he smiles at you across the gap
between you that feels as wide as the Grand Canyon. You smile back. After all, this is your daddy. Even though
he had to go away for a while because he did bad thing, and now you only get to see him
once, maybe twice a year. He’s still your daddy. No, this was not a real story. But it might
as well have been, because for 1 in 43 children in the United States, the experience of their
parent being in prison or jail is very real. For the record, that works out to about one
child in every other American classroom. And we’re learning now that those numbers
are likely woeful underestimates. In fact, recent research in Minnesota found that 1
in 6 children have a parent who is either currently, or formerly incarcerated. 1 in
6. To put that in the context of M&Ms, because that’s what I have in my office at the moment,
that’s all the blue M&Ms in this photo. We also know that having an incarcerated parent
can create many challenges for children. Many children who have a parent in prison or jail
face social, emotional and behavioral difficulties, especially if the incarcerated parent is the
primary caregiver. Many children witness their parent’s crime or arrest, both of
which can be highly stressful experiences. When an incarcerated parent is the primary financial provider of
the family, children can experience the burden of financial strain. Visiting parents while they are incarcerated
can also be straining. As the story I shared earlier shows, issues of distance, reliable
transportation, and non-family friendly environments can make visiting a parent who is incarcerated
a very stressful experience. And what about women who are pregnant when
they go to prison? In 29 states in the U.S., women are shackled as they are transported
to and from the hospital, and in some cases, even when they are in active labor. After
the 2-3 days in the hospital, their babies are taken from them, usually placed
in the care of a family member, and then the mothers must return to prison to serve the rest of their sentence. Now, I’m not saying that people should not
have to face consequences for their actions, or that people who commit crimes should roam
free. I’m saying that we could do better to consider the effects of incarceration on
the children who are left behind, and figure out ways to better promote their health and
wellbeing. I want us to stop punishing the children for
the sins and mistakes of the parents. Luckily, there are people, like my good friend
and colleague Dr. Rebecca Shlafer who are tackling this issue head on with other smart
and capable partners from across the country to improve the lives for children with incarcerated
parents. I’ll get more into a lot of her incredible
work in future videos (and hopefully she’ll agree to come talk about it herself), but
for now, I’ll share what she said at an event we attended last night. If you learned
something new, or if something I’ve said shocked or surprised you, I’d encourage
you to share what you’ve heard with one person in your personal or professional life.
This is not a topic that gets much attention in the public sphere. But it should. Because incarceration does not just cost money
and decrease the nation’s workforce. It is affecting our families and our children. Endscreen. What are you left wondering about
parental incarceration after this video? Leave your questions in comments and either I, or
someone way more well-versed in this topic will answer them. I’ll also put links below to a bunch of
resources and places to find information about incarceration, as well as some really exciting
and innovative programs that are happening across the country to address this issue. And again I’d ask that you please consider
sharing about this topic with people you know. Change starts with awareness.

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Reader Comments

  1. Practical Poppins

    1 in 6? Wow. "…effecting our families and our children" indeed. The question I have is, how can we make this better? Especially for the children effected?
    Thanks for making me think more about this. We can do better.

  2. Snap Language

    These are such alarming statistics, yet "we" worry about issues that seem so irrelevant by comparison. Thanks for sharing this information.

  3. ReadHeadPat

    I saw this amazing exhibit at Alcatraz this summer by Project WHAT! about parental incarceration. It is probably the most powerful and heart wrenching exhibit of art that I've ever seen. Here is a page from the website about the project (with pictures, make sure you read the timelines boards, those were the most powerful parts of the exhibit):
    ….When did YouTube stop allowing links in comments??????? SCHMERG!!!!
    Ok well, I will send you the links on twitter because THIS IS FRUSTRATING.

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