Children of Prisoners: the Mark of Cain
According to a 2014, Rutgers University fact sheet entitled Children and Families of the Incarcerated, more than 2.7 million children in the U. S. have an incarcerated parent. Moreover, approximately 10 million children have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives. See http://nrccfi.camden.rutgers.edu/files/nrccfi-fact-sheet-2014.pdfis. Without question, the impact of children with incarcerated parent raises significant social and political questions that were made personal by a recent trip to see a family member in prison.
Isolated from the larger community or stuck in the middle of no damn where, correctional facilities are composed of uniform, non-descriptive block buildings which are surrounded by high physical barriers and topped by circular razor wire that looks pretty but is deadly serious. On each corner of these barrier, north, south, east and west sits a guard tower, manned by two correction officers with radios and high power rifles. The current residence of my niece, the Hobby Unit of the Marlin, TX., Prison for Women is one such hell.
A rural community of farms, scorched grass and hoofed livestock, Marlin is the perfect place for a prison. Even if escape were possible, there is no food or water and nowhere to go. The nearest tree line is three miles of flat, open land with neither cover nor respite from the cruel Texas plain. One would freeze to death in winter or bake during the scorch of summer. After one day in this God forsaken land, the worst prisoner would beg to be re-incarcerated.
Fortunately, this blistering August day saw no prison break. The facility did however witness three beautiful African-American children, there to see an involuntary yet paid in full guest of the facility. A stair step of humanity, the eldest child was a male around 10 or 11, the responsible one of the group, the next a girl of 7 to 8, with yellow ribbons strategically affixed to dark, curly hair and the third a 5 to 6-year-old bad boy, with a sly grin and missing front tooth.
There with an adult female, who may or may not have been their mother, each was appropriately dressed and perfectly mannered, which served them well. Unbeknownst to them, their images were captured multiple times, from every angle, the moment they set foot on the grounds.
Step on the black rubber mat and extend your arms to the side they were told as one of two guards waved a magic wand over their heads and each side of their bodies. Now turn around and face the window they were commanded as he repeated the process, their little arms pointed in opposite directions like miniature Messiahs’ being nailed to the cross.
Take off your shoes and lift you right leg they were ordered as the guard waived the wand under their feet. Now the other leg with the same action and result. A brief pat down ended the search, with no contraband found on either of them. They were then allowed inside the gates of Hades, to yet additional dehumanizing treatment.
The negative impact on the children of incarcerated parents cannot be overstated. One in 9 African-American children (11.4%), 1 in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%), and 1 in 57 white children (1.8%), in the United States have an incarcerated parent. Approximately half of children with incarcerated parents are under ten years old.
Of the parents arrested, 67% were handcuffed in front of their children, 27% reported weapons drawn in front of their children, 4.3% reported a physical struggle and 3.2% reported the use of pepper spray. Children who witnessed an arrest of a household member were 57% more likely to have elevated post-traumatic stress symptoms compared to children who did not witness an arrest. Parental incarceration is now recognized as an adverse childhood experience (ACE), which is distinguished from other adverse childhood experiences by the unique combination of trauma, shame, and stigma. Id.
Other research buttresses the dire plight of these children. According to a 2009 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures entitled Children of Incarcerated Parents the impact of incarcerated parents on their children include emotional and behavioral problems, family instability, financial hardship, poor academic performance, impaired coping skills and dysfunctional child/parent relationships. Children whose fathers were incarcerated, were 40% more likely to have an unemployed father, 34% less likely to live with married parents, 25% more likely to material hardship and four times more likely to face contact with the child welfare system. See http://www.ncsl.org/documents/cyf/childrenofincarceratedparents.pdf.
The question is how do we resolve this problem? How do we as parents protect our children from the debilitating effect of incarceration?
The first solution for us parents is simple. Don’t go to prison. And the best way to achieve this goal is to refrain from any conduct or activity that could result in our incarceration. For those parents who are already locked up, the solution is more difficult.
We make no attempt to deprive incarcerated parents of the right to see their children. Studies show that prisoners benefit from family visits.
However, while it is important for incarcerated parents to maintain contact with their children, is it in the child’s best interest to visit their parents in prison? Does it benefit young children to endure the indignity of a prison search; to witness the horror of prison life? Or are we merely facilitating their institutionalization by making prison too comfortable, familiar and/or acceptable to already at risk youth? In other words, are we making prison life for young children the new norm; just another aspect of growing up?
We don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions. But they are important inquiries nevertheless.
Unfortunately, we were not permitted to visit our relative. The prison incorrectly concluded that we were not on the approved visitors list. This after calling the facility the day before and being told otherwise. This after wasting considerable time, money and resources to make the journey
And not one prison official moved a centimeter to check the accuracy of their records. None lifted a single finger to assist us. This indifference, this we don’t give a damn about the truth, justice, you or anyone else, is at the cold heart of the criminal justice system which acts only in its best interest and only at its convenience.
In conclusion, each contact with our warped system of justice, whether by employee, defendant, helpless bystander or innocent child, no matter how small, regardless how brief, leaves an indelible stain that never fades. We must therefore do all we can to spare our children the mark of Cain.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO
Blackacre Policy Forum