Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind

Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind

Mass Incarceration’s Collateral Damage: The Children Left Behind

When a parent is sent to prison, a child’s life is derailed, leaving schools to pick up the pieces.


This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on education.

Steven Alexander was in sixth grade when his mother, Carmen Demourelle, was sentenced to twelve years in prison for pickpocketing in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Though she was held in a women’s prison just an hour away, her four children could not telephone her and visited only about once a year.

At the time of her arrest, Demourelle was working sporadically as a beautician, though she was mainly making “fast money” by selling drugs and picking pockets while her children were in school, she said. But after school, she was an engaged and caring mother—until she was sent to prison. “I missed everything about her,” Alexander recalled. “I wanted her home.”

All four of Demourelle’s children moved in with their grandmother, who worked nights at a hospital. She supported them financially, Alexander said, but their schoolwork suffered almost immediately without their mother, who had been strict, especially about school. She hadn’t allowed them to play outside or turn on the television until their homework was done. She enforced early bedtimes. And the children were not allowed to spend time with neighbors deemed troublemakers.

Soon after their mother’s sentencing, however, homework went undone, forbidden friendships blossomed, and evenings at nightclubs became common—even on school nights.

None of the children finished high school. Almost all struggled with addiction. Steven’s older brother Stanton got into constant fights. His little sister, Sandria, was taunted by classmates, who told her: “If your mother loved you, she wouldn’t have gone to jail.” While in ninth grade, Sandria became pregnant and dropped out. Even the oldest, Stanley, an honor student, quit school as a senior after getting his girlfriend pregnant.

Steven stopped going to classes during the seventh grade. “I just wasn’t interested anymore,” he said.

* * *

A growing body of research suggests that one of the most pernicious effects of high adult- incarceration rates can be seen in the struggles of children like Steven Alexander, who often lose a crucial source of motivation and support with their parents behind bars. Stories like his are far too common today, forty years after the nation’s prison boom began wreaking havoc in African-American communities, which have been disproportionately affected by the ballooning incarceration rate. But until recently, there has been little hard data showing the effects on children. Some states allow the children of prisoners with sentences of a certain length to be adopted, thus severing ties with parents who use drugs or are involved in other criminal or gray-market activities. The theory is that children are likely better off without their crime-prone parents.

That theory has been largely disproved by new data that has allowed researchers to examine the well-being of children before and after a parent’s incarceration. A very small subset of children—those with abusive parents—were found to be more likely to thrive academically and socially if their parents are incarcerated. But most children declined markedly. In fact, the new research suggests that prisoners’ children may be the most enduring victims of our national incarceration craze.

“Even for kids at high risk of problems, parental incarceration makes a bad situation worse,” concluded Christopher Wildeman and Sara Wakefield in their recently published book, Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality.

Wildeman and Wakefield found that children with incarcerated fathers were three times more likely than peers from similar backgrounds to become homeless. They also suffered significantly higher rates of behavioral and mental-health problems, most notably aggression.

Kristin Turney, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, reached similar conclusions in a report published this past September. Turney found that children with incarcerated parents were three times more likely to suffer from depression or behavioral problems than the average American child, and twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities and anxiety.

The new analyses give statistical credence to the on-the-ground experiences of advocates and educators in states like Louisiana, the nation’s incarceration capital. “Children don’t necessarily say how they feel; they act it out,” said Torin Sanders, a social worker, Baptist pastor and former school-board president in New Orleans, who has worked with the children of incarcerated parents for two decades but has yet to see local schools systematically deal with the issue.

Within the last few years, however, a broad range of agencies and policy-makers have begun to frame the nation’s prison boom as a children’s issue. Last summer, the Justice Department launched a wide-reaching campaign to provide support to the children of imprisoned parents—by rethinking visitation policies and changing the protocol for arresting parents in front of children, for example. In August, the American Bar Foundation and the National Science Foundation invited key researchers, advocates and federal officials to the White House for a conference to discuss reducing the “collateral costs” to children and communities when parents are incarcerated. The conference was part of a larger inter-agency initiative begun in 2012 to focus the attention of participating agencies, including the Department of Education, on the children of incarcerated parents. A few months later, in November, the Federal Bureau of Prisons hosted its first-ever Universal Children’s Day, an event attended by nearly 8,500 children visiting more than 4,000 federal inmates.

Children’s television has provided a pop-culture barometer of the issue’s increased prominence. Last summer, Sesame Street introduced Alex, a blue-haired Muppet whose father is in jail. “I don’t like to talk about it,” Alex told his furry friends, describing his emotions. “Most people don’t understand. I just miss him so much. It just hurts inside…. But then sometimes I feel like I just want to pound on a pillow and scream as loud as I can.”

John Hagan, a professor of sociology and law at Northwestern University, led the White House conference with his research collaborator, Holly Foster, of Texas A&M University. Fifteen years ago, in an oft-cited paper, Hagan first suggested that the effects on children might be “the least understood and most consequential” result of mass incarceration.

Now Hagan is seeing his hypothesis proved. More than that, as his adolescent subjects enter adulthood, the effects are compounded: “Almost no children of incarcerated mothers make it through college,” he noted. “These people are now in early adulthood, and they’re really struggling.”

* * *

One in four black children born in 1990 saw their father head off to prison before they turned 14, according to Wildeman, a Cornell University sociologist. For white children of the same age, the risk is one in thirty. For black children whose fathers didn’t finish high school, the odds are even greater: more than 50 percent have dads who were locked up by the time they turned 14. To put it another way, the children of black high-school dropouts are more likely than not to see their fathers locked up.

Even well-educated black families are disproportionately affected by the incarceration boom. Wakefield and Wildeman found that black children with college-educated fathers are twice as likely to see them incarcerated as the children of white high-school dropouts.

In recent decades, the number of children with incarcerated fathers has shot up, from 350,000 in 1980 to 2.1 million in 2000. In 2004, more than half of state and federal inmates reported having at least one minor child.

Incarcerated parents are predominantly men. More than half of state and federal prisoners serving sentences of more than one year are nonviolent drug and property offenders sentenced under the “tough on crime” laws that helped create the nation’s prison boom. “When I was coming up, it was the real bad guys who were hurting people who went away,” said Oliver Thomas Jr., 57, a former New Orleans city councilman who spent time in federal prison for taking bribes. These days, when Thomas—who is also a former teacher—speaks to schoolchildren and asks who has a family member in prison, “just about everybody raises their hand.” An overwhelming number are coping with imprisoned parents, he said.

Using that lens, it’s clear that trends in prison populations are tied to child well-being. Hagan said he’d hoped that prison populations peaked at 1.6 million in 2009, which was followed by three consecutive years of declines; then, in 2013, the numbers began to edge back up again. Much of the damage is already done, Hagan added, thinking of the adolescents he began studying a few decades ago. Even if prison populations decline as quickly as they increased, the effects will still resonate for a few generations, he said. His perspective is shared by Wakefield and Wildeman, who wrote that optimism about reductions “must therefore be set against the backdrop of the children of the prison boom—a lost generation now coming of age.”

In line with the national declines, Louisiana also saw a 2.2 percent drop in its prison population in 2013, though it still tops the country—by a considerable extent—in its incarceration rate: 847 per 100,000 residents. (The rate for the second-highest state, Mississippi, is 692; by contrast, New York’s rate is 271.)

Overall, 6 percent of Louisiana’s adult black males are incarcerated. Though the state’s Department of Corrections couldn’t supply city-specific data for its prisoners, the incarceration rate is surely higher for men in New Orleans, which supplies 15 percent of the state’s prisoners, despite making up only 8 percent of its population. In the Ninth Ward, the high-poverty, largely black neighborhood where Carmen Demourelle raised her children, nearly one in five adults is locked up.

* * *

Scores of New Orleans schoolchildren have long known what researchers are just beginning to conclude: that having a parent in prison makes it difficult—and sometimes impossible—to survive childhood’s emotional roller coaster intact. More than a decade ago, Khary Dumas wrote a poem called “Daddy” for his twelfth-grade English class to describe his heartbreak over his father, who was cycling in and out of prison: ”I know this man / and you probably do too. / But when I met this man / I was only about two. / This man is new, / better yet, new to my life / because he never changed diapers / or fixed bottles at night. / He never contributed to the bills / or spun me on the merry-go-wheel. / He never taught me how to pitch / or catch / on a football field.”

Dumas, now 31, has children of his own. “I hold them so close, so dear,” he said. “I couldn’t fathom not knowing what they did on a daily basis.”

His father struggled with substance abuse, which led to his repeated arrests and left an absence that Dumas still wrestles with. “As a child, you’re looking at other people’s families—you don’t understand why my dad isn’t involved with me, why he don’t take me here, why he don’t come to my game,” he said. Though his mother woke them up for school every morning and cheered at his football games when she could, Dumas added, she had to work two jobs as the family’s sole breadwinner. And so she relied on Dumas’s grandmother and an aunt to keep an eye on her children when she couldn’t.

According to Hagan, schools should be looking out for students who need help applying to universities or community colleges on their own and making it financially feasible. Schools should also be prepared to provide emotional support to students who feel like turning inward or lashing out—like Dumas, who found himself clashing with his male teachers. “I just felt like I didn’t want a man to order me around,” he said.

Sanders, the New Orleans social worker and pastor who recently led a workshop on parental incarceration for the National Association of Social Workers, said these clashes are often the result of the abandonment that a child feels, which can develop into oppositional defiant disorder, causing children to act out even with the family members who take them in. The disorder is rooted in the idea that “if this [one] abandoned me, I don’t want to trust any adult,” Sanders said.

When Oliver Thomas went away to federal prison for three years, he watched his own daughter and nephew experience the uncertainties and sense of abandonment he’d seen in other children. “If a kid is resentful, some act out aggressively, become aloof or withdrawn, do poor academically or become active sexually. They try to deal with it,” he said.

Often, teachers and other adults tell such students that they are likely to grow up and go to prison themselves—a claim disproved by all research, said Tanya Krupat, who directs programs in the Osborne Association’s New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. “If we could stamp out one myth,” Krupat added, “that would be it.”

But those negative perceptions often hit home, Sanders noted, causing children like Steven Alexander to give up on school and view long-term goals like graduation and academic success as meaningless. “They think: ‘If I don’t have a future, why do I need to be concerned with the present?’”

The lowered expectations affect entire communities, said Ron McClain, the president and CEO of Family Service of Greater New Orleans, who estimated that 80 percent of the people he’s worked with had experienced incarceration within their immediate families. In some neighborhoods, children begin to see prison as “something that happens when you grow older,” he said.

According to a spokesperson, the US Department of Education is expanding the role of its school homelessness liaisons to combat other problems that arise when parents are incarcerated. The department’s National Center for Homeless Education hosted a webinar in May describing how schools can create an environment that honors children’s relationships with imprisoned parents. Participants also puzzled through a scenario involving a fourth grader named James, and how the education and court systems could have prevented his week-long absence from school after his mother was jailed.

* * *

For years, as prison populations grew, there was no reliable source of data about inmates’ children. Most prisons don’t ask at intake about children; nor do the enrollment forms at schools and daycares ask about incarcerated parents.

Recently, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which creates a periodic Survey of Prison Inmates, announced that it would add questions measuring the involvement of incarcerated parents with their children. Other than that, minor children of inmates are not documented in any way that can easily be statistically examined, said Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The hard data that has made researchers more certain that incarceration affects schoolchildren comes from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a large longitudinal study by Princeton and Columbia universities that followed nearly 5,000 disadvantaged children born between 1998 and 2000 in twenty large cities. Wakefield and Wildeman, as well as Turney, have used the Fragile Families data, along with data from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods, which followed about 6,000 children, adolescents and young adults between 1994 and 2002. For their work on adolescents, Hagan and Foster relied on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which started surveying students in grades seven through twelve in 1994 and has followed them into adulthood.

The Fragile Families study has now released data about its children through age 9, which has made an enormous difference for those studying the issue. “Our estimates of how parental incarceration affects the mental health and behavior of kids between 3 and 9 are very good,” Wildeman said. “Anything beyond that is messy.”

Other key data sets have helped researchers tease out important linkages, but they lack the before-and-after information that shows the effects of incarceration on its own. In other words, they fail to distinguish between correlation and causation.

Wildeman and Wakefield used the Fragile Families data to determine that many of the nation’s persistent racial gaps in child well-being can be explained at least partly by paternal imprisonment. They unpacked key indicators that negatively affect a child’s well-being—homelessness, mental health and behavior problems—and took them through a series of statistical tests, looking at racial disparities and ties to parental incarceration.

For instance, the researchers found that, compared with other at-risk children in the Fragile Families study with similar demographics, children whose fathers had recently been incarcerated were three times more likely to have been homeless in the last year. To reach that conclusion, the researchers created statistical models allowing them to examine and adjust for other factors that can also lead to homelessness, including drug and alcohol abuse and reliance on cash welfare or public housing.

“The effects of mass incarceration on childhood inequality are too large to ignore,” the researchers wrote. Parental incarceration “has implications not only for individual children but also for inequality among them.”

* * *

That inequality persists well into adulthood. Steven Alexander’s mother was a model prisoner and earned release two years early, but the effects of her years behind bars endured, said Demourelle, now 57. Not a day goes by when she doesn’t have regrets, she added: “I should have been here to make sure they went to school. I should have been here to pick their friends.”

Demourelle married a childhood friend, found steady work as part of a New Orleans violence-prevention team and is helping to raise her grandchildren (her daughter is still struggling with addiction). Her sunny, spacious apartment is filled with visiting children running up and down the steps.

Recently, as her extended family gathered for a movie night, Demourelle sat on the couch next to her youngest son and talked proudly about the complicated sound system he’d connected to the television that evening. Ever since he was young, she said, he was able to take his toys apart and put them back together. He would find electronic parts in the garbage and assemble them with other parts. He also learned to cook from his grandmother and advanced to operating entire restaurant kitchens from top to bottom. “He can fix anything; he can cook anything,” she said, caressing her son’s face.

Earlier this year, Steven Alexander was refused entry into a culinary training program because he couldn’t read well enough to pass the screening test. At times like these, his mother finds herself wishing that she could truly make up for lost time. “I’m still trying to figure it out: What can I do now to make their lives better?” she said.

* * *

Kristin Turney has devoted much of her career to exploring the connection between parental incarceration and children’s well-being from a statistical point of view. In addition to the Fragile Families data, she has relied on the massive National Survey of Children’s Health for some of her most significant findings. Using the 2012 survey, which encompassed nearly 100,000 children from birth to age 17, she attempted to control for factors like poverty, parental mental health and marital status to assess incarceration’s effects. She found that incarceration appeared to cause—or, at the very least, to aggravate—developmental delays in children, including behavior problems, speech issues and learning disabilities. By contrast, parental incarceration was not linked to childhood obesity or chronic school absence, Turney found.

Despite the growing consensus among them, researchers say that countless questions remain. Turney struggles with one key question: Why does incarceration affect kids? “Is it stigma, attachments, income loss, parents breaking up and relationships not surviving? We don’t know,” she said. Another elusive question: Why are some children so much more resilient than others? In New Orleans, underresourced educators and advocates have worked tirelessly to foster such qualities in at-risk children, but it is still too rare.

Louis Ward Jr. was only 6 months old when his father was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on a life sentence, as a habitual offender convicted of simple robbery. Louis Jr., now 21, got into good schools, studied hard and dreamed of becoming a police officer, but then he shifted gears and is now halfway through a bachelor’s degree in forensic pathology. Louis Sr. observed most of his only son’s childhood years through letters and photographs received in the mail. Recently, however, his legal filings from prison convinced a judge to reduce his sentence to twenty years. So, in March, the two were able to spend Mardi Gras together in New Orleans.

One morning, Louis Sr. made his son breakfast and brought it to the table, saying, “This is for all the breakfasts I missed.” Every eye in the room welled up, including his son’s. “It touched me,” said Louis Jr., who added that he sees himself “to the max” in his father. “We’re pretty much the same person,” he said, without a hint of the resentment that some children harbor toward parents who serve time.

Louis Jr. said that his mother pushed him not only to write his father regularly but to keep up with school. He recalled his dad’s imprisonment coming up in classroom writing assignments. “I would use that experience to enhance my stories—to turn a negative into a positive,” he added, “by saying how it makes me stronger, and how I don’t look at it as a setback.”

Sanders recognizes this story line, too. “We call it Batman syndrome,” he said, “because we see it in children who have a negative experience and strive to achieve and give back to society in the opposite way.” Named after the DC Comics superhero who becomes a crimefighter after seeing his parents murdered, Batman syndrome is the opposite of a reaction that Sanders calls “fulfilling the prophecy,” in which children perceive their father’s incarceration as a reason for them to be “bad on the street, too—to be bad like Dad is.”

Advocates for youth hope that the new discussions and findings about parental incarceration may ultimately yield a better understanding about child resilience and how it can be cultivated even in children who face the greatest difficulties. Ayesha Buckner, the longtime homelessness liaison for the Orleans Parish School Board, consistently notes a small but distinct subset of resilient children in her work. “Some kids will make it,” Buckner said. “And they’ll make it without a support system or despite the chaos or uncertainty they have grown up with. They’ll make it because they have this will, this drive to survive.”


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