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Children of Prisoners-Are We Punishing the Children Too?

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When you think about prisons, preschoolers don't usually come to mind. But a growing number of children of all ages are finding that prison has become part of their everyday world. That's because the number of children with parents in correctional facilities is growing at an alarming rate.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports that close to 1.5 million children -- nearly one-quarter under five -- had a parent in state or federal prison in 1999. The number of children with parents in prison grew by 60 percent or more than 500,000 children since 1991. Hispanic children were three times and Black children were nine times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison.

The growing numbers of children with mothers in prison is especially troubling. Twenty-five years ago, the Children's Defense Fund examined the problem of children of women prisoners in Rikers Island in one of our earliest reports, Why Punish the Children? The problem has worsened.

Between 1991 and 1999, the number of children with a mother in prison nearly doubled to over 125,000. Many of these mothers are in prison for crimes related to drug or alcohol abuse. Mothers were twice as likely as fathers to have committed crimes while under the influence of cocaine-based drugs or opiates. Nearly three-fourths of the mothers in federal prisons are there for drug offenses.

Mothers were also more likely than fathers to have experienced homelessness or unemployment shortly before going to prison. Since the majority of incarcerated mothers lived with their children before being sent to prison, many of their children had already been experiencing instability at home before this major upheaval.

Where do children of parents in prison go? Most often to stay with grandparents, other relatives, or friends, and if they aren't available, to foster parents and the child welfare system. Both mothers and fathers say they try to keep up communication with their children while in prison but circumstances can make this difficult.

Families who do stay in touch often have to make do with phone calls and letters because distance makes visits difficult or impossible. Over 60% of parents in state prisons and nearly 85% of parents in federal prisons are being held over 100 miles away from their last residence. As a result, more than half of parents in prison say they have never had a personal visit from their children.

While adults are in prison because they've made mistakes, children end up suffering too. Over half of mothers in prison and nearly three-fourths of fathers in prison have been sentenced to terms longer than five years--major portions of a child's life.

In response to this growing crisis, some communities and correctional facilities are creating innovative programs that help parents in prison maintain closer contact with their children and learn better parenting skills. Some facilities offer parenting and child development classes and other life skills training to help parents get back on their feet.

Some promote literacy for both inmates and their children by tape-recording parents reading bedtime stories and giving the tapes and books to their children. Others have developed special child-friendly visiting areas within prisons where children can visit their parents, sometimes even overnight. These programs serve both generations.

Parents who are able to feel connected to their children and have been taught specific ways to be better parents have a very strong incentive to continue these positive behaviors and avoid old behaviors that might send them back to prison. And children are able to feel more secure and reassured that their parents still love and care about them.

There is a role for all of us in reaching out to these children. Faith-based and other community organizations can offer mentoring and other supports for children of incarcerated parents and sponsor activities that will promote parent-child interaction and strengthen parent-child relationships, parenting supports, and life skills training.

The children's surrogate caregivers also need help and support. And we can push for alternatives to incarceration for parents convicted of non-violent offenses that encourage parent-child interaction. Having a parent in prison is not a child's fault but sometimes children end up feeling like they are being punished too.

Marian Wright Edelman is President and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund, whose mission is to Leave No Child Behind® and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities.

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