“Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.”
Family Life and Prison: An Increasingly Common Phenomenon
Virtually every country uses incarceration as a consequence for having committed a crime. In recent years, as the result of a number of factors including the war on drugs and the increasing economic gap between the rich and the poor, incarceration rates have begun to rise in most countries. In some countries, the increase in the number of incarcerated citizens has been substantial.
For example, in the U.S., 698 of every 100,000 people are currently incarcerated, exceeded only by Seychelles at 799 per 100,000. As of 2013, there were 2.7 million, or one in 28, children in the U.S. with a parent in prison. Over 14,000 of those children enter the foster care system each year. A 2011 study estimated that 800,000 children in the European Union (EU) experience separation from an incarcerated parent each year. In Russia, the ratio is 445 of every 100,000 people. Australia’s ratio is 151 of every 100,000 , while the Netherlands is at 75 per 100,000.
Many countries, such as Cambodia, Mexico, Turkey and Argentina, allow children to live in prison with their mothers until the age of 6. Russia requires children of prisoners to be placed in child care facilities attached to the prisons, with parents given regular access. Other countries, such as Norway and Australia, have residential units for female prisoners with young children. In the United States, very few prisons allow children to remain with their mothers, and those that do, only for 18 months. Despite differing ratios, geographic locations, and policies, the combination of family life and prison have similar negative effects on children worldwide.
Family Life and Prison—An Incompatible Combination
According to a 2009 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures acknowledges the importance of maintaining family contact to the well-being of children as well as to the post-release success of prisoners. However, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics, in U.S. state prisons, only 12.3 percent of fathers and 14.6 percent of mothers received visits from a child once a month, while fifty-nine percent of fathers and 58 percent of mothers received no visits.
Some of the reasons for infrequent contact include barriers such as prison rules and prisons being located too far away for family members to travel. American prisons also commonly charge excessive fees for telephone calls that might help maintain regular communication between family members. Long waits, body frisks, and crowded waiting rooms with no activities for children are also factors. Often, the other parent wants to sever ties with the prisoner.
Effects of Family Life and Prison on Children
In addition to the emotional trauma of being deprived of consistent contact with an imprisoned parent, children of incarcerated parents are at higher risk for a number of other health concerns. A study designed to examine the effects of having an incarcerated parent on the health of children found that they suffered higher rates of attention deficits, behavioral problems, speech, language and other developmental delays. Another study found that they had higher rates of anxiety, depression, obesity, and asthma.
A parent in prison can also affect a child’s future education. According to a 2013 report, in the U.S., only 1 to 2 percent of students with incarcerated mothers and 13 to 25 percent of students with imprisoned fathers graduate from college. A member of the family going to prison is considered one of the “adverse childhood experiences” that contribute to potentially life-long significant health, educational, and social problems for children.
Family life and prison causes children to struggle with feelings of anger and shame associated with social stigma. Grieving the loss of a positive role model, they often fear growing up to be incarcerated themselves.
The caretaking parent is often faced with financial difficulty due to the loss of a second income. Increased poverty leads to increased stress, which can also lead to angry and aggressive behaviors that can further negatively impact the child.
Family Life and Prison: Challenges Upon Release
The effects of parental incarceration on children continue after the release of the parent from prison. Reuniting with family members after a long separation is difficult. Children have grown and changed and have often formed relationships with other adult parental figures during their absence. The caretaking parent during the incarceration may feel protective and be hesitant to allow the child to re-establish a relationship for fear of future similar abandonment. Such conflicts between adults often add to a child’s stress.
Fortunately, there are some sources of support for children of incarcerated parents and their families. One organization even created a series of educational tools designed specifically to help children deal more effectively with the emotional issues surrounding family life and prison. One uses the popular Sesame Street characters in a children’s story which reflects the realities of these children’s lives in a kind, supportive way to help them feel less socially isolated and ashamed. Every kindness is a preventative measure that eases the pain of these innocents.