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The Long Shadow Cast By A Parent's Incarceration

The notion that children of the incarcerated are also doomed to a life behind bars is not only wrong, it shortchanges young people who need help, not hardship.(Phanatic/flickr)
The notion that children of the incarcerated are also doomed to a life behind bars is not only wrong, it shortchanges young people who need help, not hardship.(Phanatic/flickr)
This article is more than 4 years old.

I’m not sure what people thought when I was 10 years old and my father was incarcerated. I do not know if neighbors and teachers and members of my family’s Catholic community bowed their heads in sorrow and imagined the worst for my five siblings and me.

It is possible that, 40 years ago, when my father was arrested, people realized a parent’s incarceration did not determine a child’s life chances. It is possible that, in the mid-1970s, decades before the War on Drugs, three strikes policies and the swelling of prison ranks, people knew a parent’s incarceration did not necessarily equal a child’s future sentencing.

Most people erroneously believe that children whose parents are incarcerated are bound to trace their parents’ ill-fated footsteps.

It is possible, but, according to the evidence, it is not probable. Most people erroneously believe that children whose parents are incarcerated are bound to trace their parents’ ill-fated footsteps. Although a recent report aims to correct this misperception about the children of the incarcerated, most people tend to believe that such children are, if not doomed, then unlikely to prevail.

Unless we know someone who is in prison or work with this population, most people tend not to think about those living behind bars. It may not occur to some that prisoners might have families and children of their own. And because the prison population in this country is, increasingly, poor and black, there is also a misperception that wealthier communities and different ethnicities are not touched by incarceration.

In fact, more than 10 million children in the U.S. have had an incarcerated parent.

According to “Seven out of Ten? Not Even Close: A Review of the Research on the Likelihood of Children with Incarcerated Parents Becoming Justice Involved,” two oft-reported statistics — that seven out of 10 children of incarcerated parents will someday become incarcerated, and that children of prisoners are more than six times as likely as their peers to be incarcerated — are not only incorrect, they hurt children and families. In fact, only 30 percent of children of incarcerated parents find themselves behind bars. Incorrect statistics stigmatize children and pre-judge them as damaged goods. They also influence public policy, so that the focus is on curbing inter-generational crime, rather than on what most children and families need, such as safe housing and daycare.

Whatever the reason the incorrect statistics have been perpetuated, one thing is certain: If we believe that children are bound to follow their parents into jails and prisons, then we eliminate the incentive to examine and improve their lives. The conditions that might drag these vulnerable children down are likely the same factors that contributed to their parents’ demise, as well: poverty, unemployment, inadequate and unsafe housing, over-policed communities and racism.

If we believe that children are bound to follow their parents into jails and prisons, then we eliminate the incentive to examine and improve their lives.

My siblings and I turned out well. We were and are happy and well-loved, and we are all good citizens with good jobs. There are two major reasons for this. The first is our incredibly courageous and hard-working mother. The second is that, in spite of the economic hardship that befell us when our family’s main source of income, my father, was incarcerated, we still had advantages, like a safe place to live and good schools.

Our road was far from easy, and I suspect there were many who believed we would not make it. Today, I want to tell them that we did, and that other children of incarcerated parents can, as well. We just have to believe in them.


Megan Sullivan won an Anthony Award for her essay, “My Father’s Prison.” She has edited a collection of writing by adult children of incarcerated parents and written a middle grade fiction reader on the topic of families and re-entry.

Related:

Megan Sullivan Cognoscenti contributor
Megan Sullivan is an Associate Dean at Boston University.

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