728 x 90
728 x 90

Parents Behind Bars

Parents Behind Bars

Perpetuating mass incarceration in the US

The United States currently has the dubious honor of being the world leader when it comes to imprisonment. For every 100,000 people in the US there are 716 people behind bars. This translates in 2.25 million incarcerated individuals. When you compare this to other industrialized nations, Russia is a distant second with 486 prisoners for every 100,000 people. The impact of this large scale incarceration is huge. Instead of penalizing the individual, America’s sentencing policies are negatively impacting entire communities.

Besides the transformation of community dynamics and the exacerbation of racial and class divisions, one of the ripple effects of America’s policy of mass incarceration is a cycle of intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system. Currently 2.7 million children have a parent in prison. Research shows that these children are significantly more likely than other children to get in trouble with the law. Keeping these findings in mind, I wondered if we can argue that the modern American prison system is responsible for perpetuating the vicious cycle of incarceration. To find some answers I spoke to Marc Mauer who is the executive director of the Sentencing Project – a non-profit organization founded in 1989 which works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system – and Sharon Content who founded the non-profit organization Children of Promise New York City (CPNYC) in 2007 in order to meet the needs of kids with a parent in prison.

Tough on Crime

The United States has less than five percent of the world’s population but has a quarter of the world’s prisoners. But while it is true that the U.S. has a higher rate of violent crime than most other Western countries, this only accounts for a portion of these outrageous incarceration rates. Mauer observes: “Since the inception of ‘Tough on Crime’ policies in the 1980s, and particularly including the ‘war on drugs’, the U.S. has adopted policies designed to send more people to prison and to keep them there for longer periods of time. Research by leading criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Allen Beck found that the quadrupling of the prison population from 1980-2000 was entirely explained by such changes in sentencing policy, and not in changes in crime.”

In practice, these ‘Tough on Crime’ policies mean that in the U.S., as opposed to other industrialized countries, an ever increasing amount of people are being locked up for non-violent crimes like fraud, theft and driving offenses. And of all these non-violent crimes, the effect of drug sentences on the federal system is the most pronounced. In the first fifteen years of the so called ‘War on Drugs’, from 1980 to 1995, the number of state prisoners locked up for drug crimes increased by more than 1000 percent.

IN DEPTH | ‘Tough on Crime’ and the ‘War on Drugs’

As part of the ‘Tough on Crime Movement’ which started in the 1960s but gained momentum in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the Reagan administration launched the ‘War on Drugs’ . When Reagan became president in 1981 he announced: “We’re taking down the surrender flag that has flown over so many drug efforts; we’re running up a battle flag”. Five years after this speech the first major law of the War on Drugs was passed by the U.S. Congress. It appropriated 1.7 billion dollars to fight the drug crisis and a whopping 97 million dollar was allocated to build new prisons. The bill’s most consequential action was the creation of strict mandatory minimum penalties for crack cocaine, the harshest punishment ever adopted for low level drug offenses. Even when compared to powder cocaine, the penalties for crack were still far greater.
Crack use isn’t a black-only phenomenon, but the crack epidemic (1984-1990) hit black neighborhoods much harder than most. Which partly explains why – although whites and blacks engage in drug offenses, possession and sale at roughly comparable rates – 37 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses are African American. Considering that African Americans only make up 13 percent of the US population and 14 percent of monthly drug users, there is a major disparity in how the drug war is being enforced. Furthermore, race disparities can be seen in arrests, prosecutions, imprisonment, rehabilitation programs and many other aspects of the War on Drugs.

One direct result of America’s distinctive approach to crime and punishment is the phenomenon of prison overcrowding. In particular since the start of the economic recession, the financial burden for running all these prisons is almost too much to afford. When all the costs are added up – i.e. placing adults in prison and jails, confining youth in detention centers and supervising individuals on probation and parole – the U.S. spends almost 70 billion dollars each year on correction.

Mauer explains one of the implications of these costly corrections practices for public safety and state budgets; “A major problem produced by mass incarceration is that it shifts enormous resources to the back end of the justice system, prison, which in turn sharply reduces the opportunity to invest in approaches to public safety that emphasize prevention, treatment, and community-building”.

Does the US prison system work?

So we now know that the U.S. criminal system is incredibly expensive and particularly harsh. But does it work? Are the crime rates down? A 2005 report on the complex relationship between incarceration and crime concludes that there is no significant impact of increased incarceration rates on reducing crime. Since 1998, twelve states experienced stable or declining incarceration rates, yet the 12 percent average decrease in crime rates in these states was the same as in the 28 states in which rates of imprisonment increased. If incarceration was having the impact on crime that proponents suggest, then those states with higher increases in incarceration rates should have experienced more substantial declines in crime. In other words, the relationship between crime and incarceration rates is inconsistent; it doesn’t mean that incarceration has zero impact on crime, but it also doesn’t mean that incarceration has a positive impact on crime.

“The engine of punitive punishment of mothers will haunt this nation for many years to come.”

Similarly, the ‘War on Drugs’ hasn’t ended or curtailed the international drug trade nor does it protect people and communities. Statistics show that the ‘War’ does more harm than good. U.S. District Court, Buffalo New York, Judge John T.Curtin explains;  “One result which is especially cruel and will have a terrible impact on American life for many generations is the large increase in the number of women incarcerated for drug violations. […] Many are the mothers of small children who will be left without maternal care, and most probably without any parental care at all…The engine of punitive punishment of mothers will haunt this nation for many years to come.”

Cycle of crime

Judge John Curtin, who made the above comment 12 years ago was right; the impact of the large increase of female incarceration is extensive. Today, more than 2.7 million children in America have a parent in prison and this number continues to grow.  Disproportionately effecting poor, urban and African American communities- mass incarceration is responsible for deep social transformations for prisoners’ families.

Sharon Content explains that one of the biggest challenges in trying to keep the family intact is of a logistical nature: “Prisons are primarily located in very rural areas often times not located near bus stops or train stations. Even when you take the bus or train you have to find your way to remotely located and difficult to find prisons.  In addition families have to contend with the cost factor in remaining connected with loved ones that are incarcerated.  They need resources not only for transportation but food and beverages that must be purchased during the visit.  These factors prohibit many families from being able to visit together with all members at the same time”.

Children with a parent who has been incarcerated often grow up in families plagued by poverty, abuse, neglect and drug use.

Separation from a parent is a well-documented problem for children. Children with a parent who has been incarcerated often grow up in families plagued by poverty, abuse, neglect and drug use and are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled from school or get in trouble with the law. Additionally children who witness their mother or father being handcuffed and arrested, who when visiting their parent in prison are frisked by guards and treated like criminals themselves, become contemptuous or fearful towards law enforcement.

Sharon Content’s organization Children of Promise, NYC – which provides comprehensive services to over 200 children of prisoners and their families – runs programs which address these feelings: “Children might express their distain for the police department saying  ‘I hate that cop’ or something of that nature, but what that really expresses is their fear.  A fear for people who resemble those officers that took their mom or dad away. For some of our young people a police uniform also symbolizes a certain level of disrespect.  CPNYC’s mental health professionals work with the children to validate their feelings and deal with their pain, anger and sense of abandonment.  We also provide workshops that guide students on how to react when approached by a police officer and respond when you are stopped or being questioned. We educate young people about their rights and responsibilities to remain calm and respectful when approached by law enforcement, understanding that knowledge is the best way for to deal with and combat their fears.”

Sharon ContentResearch shows that not addressing the fear and contempt of law enforcement is known to contribute to the likelihood that a child will follow in the incarcerated parent’s footsteps.  One particular study, conducted by Acoca and Austin, focused on 1000 girls in the California penal system and revealed the self perpetuating nature of the US prison system. According to their case files, more than 95 percent of the girls were assessed as lacking a stable home environment, more than half of the girls interviewed reported having mothers who had been arrested or incarcerated and just under half of the girls’ fathers had reportedly been locked up at some point. 15 percent of the fathers were reportedly incarcerated at the time of the interview.

Overcoming obstacles

According to Content incarceration is very much a family matter and preserving family ties is essential to prevent intergenerational involvement in the criminal justice system.  Which is why in the CPNYC’s programs, respecting the parent child relationship is a major component of the program.   “Research has shown that keeping a family together and allowing prisoners visits from loved ones positively affects the behavior of prison population.  From the children’s standpoint remaining connected with their imprisoned parent is very important.  Children are so inquisitive and ask a lot of questions about their parents.  It is important that they know that their mom and dad loves them and that they are safe in a place they envision as dangerous.  It is crucial to bring a level of comfort, understanding and awareness to the child about their parents daily life.” Yet for those in charge of the corrections system preserving family ties seems to be at the bottom of their list.

So besides major reforms that limit excessive mandatory minimum sentences for low level offenses and addressing the race and class disparities, what can we do on a more practical level to keep family ties intact and children of incarcerated parents out of trouble? Marc Mauer feels that housing prisoners closer to home whenever possible in order to facilitate visitation would be a great improvement. Another obstacle that needs to be addressed in his eyes is the excessive fees charged for collect phone calls from prison. A 25 cent call on the outside might be five dollar call in prison.

“We should ask ourselves; ‘what can we do, so this young person is raised and develops in the least traumatic manner?”

Additionally a small number of women’s prisons make provisions for newborn babies to live with their mothers for the first 12-18 months, and have good success in creating bonds and teaching parenting skills. Mauer thinks this is a model that should be considered in all states. Sharon Content agrees and adds: “We should ask ourselves; ‘what can we do, so this young person is raised and develops in the least traumatic manner?’

Rather than separating a child from his or her mother, possibly being put into foster care or also separated from sibling we have to take preventive measures which may include having the mother raise her child especially when the sentence is less than two years.”


  1. Acoca, L., and Austin, J., The Hidden Crisis: The Women Offenders Sentencing Study and Alternative Sentencing Recommendations Project. San Francisco, CA: National Council on Crime and Delinquency 1996.
  2.  Blumstein, A. & Beck, A.J. “Population Growth in U.S. Prisons, 1980-1996.” In Tonry, M. & Petersilia, J. (Eds.) Prisons: Crime and Justice- A Review of Research. Volume 26. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1999.
  3. Judge James P. Grey (2001). Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It: A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs Temple University Press DOI: 10.5860/CHOICE.39-2462
  4. Marc Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind (ed), Invisible Punishment. The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment, The New Press, New York, 2002.
  5.  Ryan S. King, Marc Mauer, Malcolm C. Young, Incarceration and Crime, a Complex Relationship, The Sentencing Project, 2005. http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/inc_iandc_complex.pdf
  6.  Gabor Maté, MD, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Close encounters with Addiction, North Atlantic Books, BerkeleyCalifornia, 2010.
  7. Dr. Bruce Western, Dr. Becky Pettit (2010). Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on economic mobility The Pew Charitable Trust
  8. Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, A Graphic Retelling, The New Press, New York, 2013

This article originally appeared in the issue Dangerous Minds | The Criminal Issue

us incarceration,criminal justic system, american prison stats, american correctional system issues, impact of incarceration on children, effects of incarceration on children

Elke Weesjes

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked with *

Cancel reply


  • Shaw1960
    July 16, 2013, 20:45

    I feel very sad, reading this article. We need to immediately start an
    anti-War on Drugs to begin to ameliorate some of the damage that has
    been done to our society. Release all of the people in prison for a
    drug offense, decriminalize all drugs, and start to help all of the
    children with incarcerated parents. Funding seems complicated, but for
    starters, we’ll be saving 30k a year on all of the people we are no
    longer incarcerating–that is not a small amount of funding, right
    there. Unemployment is high, so make my new program a Roosevelt-style
    WPA army of workers. Roosevelt started what today’s detractors call
    socialism in the U.S., and his programs worked famously to build
    highways and dams. We need new highways and dams, and we need to solve
    the mass-incarceration problem in the U.S. at the same time. In the
    meantime, I pray for these children, my secular prayers, that they
    receive the same healthcare as children of the members of Congress, and
    that the children may feel an outpouring of all of our love in the
    village that is needed to raise a child.