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.
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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.