Prisoner Reentry

IV. Impact on the Family

The effects of incarceration and reentry extend beyond individuals who have had direct experience with the criminal justice system. Family members of the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated also feel the harmful effects of the experience of their family members being arrested; removed to prison for, on average, nearly 3 years; and then returned to the home, placed on parole supervision, and in many cases cycling in and out of prison. Removing a parent from the home not only interrupts the function of the traditional family but also removes a source of income because one less adult is working. This loss often forces the remaining family members—usually the mother—to take on additional employment, thus reducing time for parenting. Furthermore, family members are often left to cover costs associated with incarceration itself: Providing money to the incarcerated family member, accepting collect phone calls, and traveling long distances for visitation are expenses that add up over years of incarceration.

Little is known about the effects of incarceration on children. It is clear, however, that the reach of imprisonment extends deeply into the population of minor children in America. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has reported that at least 1.5 million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated, and another 10 million have had at least one parent incarcerated at some point in their lives (Mumola, 2000). They represent 2% of all minor children in America. As with the incarcerated population generally, the racial profile of these children is revealing. A sobering 7% of all African American minor children in the United States currently have a parent in prison.

The separation of a parent from his or her child can have great consequences, both for the parent and for the child. The contacts between parent and child during incarceration are infrequent, strained, under artificial conditions, and costly.At the time of release, reestablishment of the parent– child relationship is enormously difficult, and sometimes impossible. The passage of time, the shame and stigma of the parental incarceration, and the absence of positive interactions all pose barriers to successful reconnection between parent and child. Yet, not withstanding these barriers, the parent–child bond is often powerful and resilient. For some individuals leaving prison, the opportunity to create, or reestablish, a positive relationship with their children provides strong motivation to success in the reentry process. However, the overwhelming reality remains, namely, that the era of mass incarceration has, in effect, cast a long shadow across the next generation as more and more young Americans are growing up having lost their parents to imprisonment. Little is known about the intergenerational consequences of this reality.

On a more macro level, the removal of larger numbers of men, sending them to prison, and returning them home with significant new social challenges in terms of participation in the world of work and other institutions of civil society, has created communities that are experiencing new realities in the relationships between men and women. In these communities the pool of marriageable men is significantly reduced, contributing to an increase in the number of single mothers (Braman, 2002). It is likely that the process of removing so manymen fromfamilies and communities has a great impact on early childhood development of the community’s children, the dating relationships of its teenagers, the family formation behaviors of its young adults, and the long-term shape of family life. However, research in this area is lacking, and it is impossible to fully understand the impacts of incarceration and reentry on children and families.

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