Incarcerating parents punishes families, watchdog group warns

By: - August 12, 2022 7:00 am

Prison Policy Initiative found that 1.25 million children nationally have an incarcerated parent, increasing their negative outcomes. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

More than one million children nationally have a parent in prison, and prisons make family visits difficult — even though family contact helps inmates cope behind bars and reduces their recidivism rates, according to a new analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative.

The childhood trauma that results from a parent’s incarceration can echo through a child’s life, increasing the child’s odds of getting involved in the criminal justice system themselves and lost to foster or institutional care, the watchdog group warned.

Using federal data released in 2020, researchers found that almost half of people incarcerated in state prisons have children, and about 19% of those 1.25 million children are 4 or younger. Mothers are disproportionately impacted, partly because women are likelier to lead a single-parent household and be living with their children before their imprisonment, the group found.

The analysis didn’t provide state snapshots, but a 2016 report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found about 65,000 children in New Jersey had an incarcerated parent.

“Prisons fail entire families — and society more broadly — by separating millions of children from their parents, and by enforcing harmful policies that perpetuate cycles of poverty and disadvantage,” wrote Leah Wang, the initiative’s research analyst who authored the analysis.

Prisons should make visitation for families easier and ensure parents are incarcerated close to home, Wang wrote.

New Jersey has made some progress on that.

In 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a law intended to help incarcerated parents maintain stronger ties with their families and protect pregnant inmates. It requires corrections officials to place incarcerated parents in prisons close to home and provide parenting classes and trauma-informed care for inmates. It also prohibits solitary confinement for pregnant inmates.

But Bonnie Kerness, coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s prison watch program, said prison operations are so opaque it’s hard to know how well the 2020 law is being carried out.

“Once legislation gets passed, who’s minding the store?” she said. “Even with that legislation, it’s focused on the parents. What about the children? What about getting the children transportation for visits?”

Protecting the children of incarcerated parents requires rethinking punishment, Kerness said.

“We need to think very carefully about the parents we imprison, and is imprisonment necessary for that particular crime and that particular parent? Is there an alternative?” she said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.

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