Education Opinion

New in Print: Innocent Victims

January 10, 2006 3 min read

An award-winning journalist, Nell Bernstein also coordinates the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. In her new book, All Alone in the World, she tells the often-heartbreaking stories of these all-but-forgotten children. With the ranks of prison inmates with children growing daily in the United States, it is a narrative that raises many important policy questions for those concerned with the welfare of children. The following is an exerpt:

“Two-point-four million American children have a mother or father in jail or prison right now. More than 7 million, or one in 10 of the nation’s children, have a parent under criminal-justice supervision—incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. In some neighborhoods, the numbers are so high that children will tell you just about everyone on their block has seen a mother or father locked up at one point or another.

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New in Print

Over the past three decades, the United States has embarked on an expansion of its penal system that is unprecedented in its scope and overwhelming in its impact on children and families. With more than 2.1 million of our citizens behind bars—a fivefold increase from 30 years ago—we have now outstripped Russia as the world’s most prolific jailer. This represents not a response to an upsurge in violence—nearly three-quarters of those admitted to state prisons have been convicted of nonviolent crimes—but a radical revision in our approach to those who use and sell drugs. Since 1980, the number of people behind bars for breaking the drug laws has increased twelvefold, far outstripping the growth of the prison population as a whole.

The prison boom has done more than rob individual children of the presence of a parent. It has stripped poor communities of the most valuable resource they have left: familial bonds. In neighborhoods across the country—drained first of fathers, then of mothers—children rely for care on impoverished grandmothers or a series of paid strangers. These children celebrate a parent’s release with cyclical regularity, then lose hope in increments as she fights a losing battle against joblessness, untreated addiction, and the intractable stigma of a criminal record. ...

... [T]he picture drawn by researchers—and, in interviews, by children themselves—is bleak. The children of prisoners suffer from anxiety and attention disorders, or from post-traumatic stress. They are likely to bounce from one caregiver to another; to have and to cause trouble in school. Often poor to begin with, they get poorer once a parent is arrested. As many as half of all boys whose parents do time will wind up behind bars themselves—a formula that virtually guarantees one generation’s prison boom will feed and fuel the next. ...

These children have committed no crime, but the penalty they are forced to pay is steep. They forfeit, too often, much of what matters to them: their homes, their safety, their public status and private self-image, their primary source of comfort and affection. Their lives and prospects are profoundly affected by the numerous institutions that lay claim to their parents—police, courts, jails and prisons, probation and parole—but they have no rights, explicit or implicit, within any of these jurisdictions. Conversely, there is no requirement that systems serving children—schools, child-welfare departments, juvenile-justice agencies—so much as take note of parental incarceration.

The harm children experience is sometimes referred to as one of the collateral consequences of America’s policy of mass incarceration. In fact, “collateral” may be too oblique a term. The dissolution of families, the harm to children—and the resultant perpetuation of the cycle of crime and incarceration from one generation to the next—may be the most profound and damaging effect of our current penal structure.”

—Nell Bernstein

This excerpt originally appears in All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated by Nell Bernstein (The New Press, 2005). Published with the permission of The New Press (www.thenewpress.com).