Equity & Diversity Commentary

When a Parent Is in Prison

By Howard Zehr — April 13, 2011 2 min read

Approximately 3 million children in the United States have a parent in prison. Most teachers have these children in their classrooms. These young people face unique challenges that affect their classroom behavior and learning.

Many of them, often being raised by grandparents or foster parents, share the ache of separation that any child who doesn’t have regular contact with one or both parents experiences. Added to this are the particular pains of having parents in prison: shame and isolation; a sense of guilt for their parents’ condition; anger at their parents and others; and anxiety about themselves, their parents, and their caregivers. “We have to grow up fast,” the older children I’ve spoken to often say.

In a misplaced attempt to shield such children, caregivers often withhold the truth from them. As the children mature, they often suspect that something is wrong. And when the truth does come out, they experience a sense of betrayal and mistrust that affects their relationships and their view of the world.

Not surprisingly, many children who have one or both parents in prison have emotional, behavioral, and educational problems at a rate higher than other children. Many suffer from attachment disorders. All too often, this trauma is passed on to those around them and to future generations. Marie Scott is serving a life sentence. Her parents were in prison, as was her son. She calls this “intergenerational incarceration.”

Our book What Will Happen to Me? is intended to give voice and visibility to these often-forgotten children who are so profoundly affected by policies that do not take their needs into account. Rather than speak for them, my co-author Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz and I wanted to provide an opportunity for them to speak for themselves. We also wanted to provide suggestions for caregivers—grandparents, social workers, and teachers—who are responsible for these children.

In our interviews with these young people, we found that teachers played a significant role in their lives, both negatively and positively. When teachers were unaware of or insensitive to what was going on with these children, it compounded their sense of shame, isolation, and trauma. Teachers who were attentive to the needs of these students often played pivotal roles in their lives. Indeed, for some children, their teachers were their salvation.

We hope the messages of these photos and words will be helpful to those who are involved in these children’s lives.

A version of this article appeared in the April 20, 2011 edition of Education Week as When a Parent Is in Prison


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