In the late 1980s, it was a weekly ritual for my four brothers and I. Something I relished more than playing hide-and-seek, and I loved that game. I sat on my grandmother’s sofa waiting for my turn to speak with my father. He usually called once a week. One time, a week or so had gone by and he hadn’t called me. When he finally called, I was livid with him. “You fussed at me like I didn’t love you,” he later told me. At the time, I interpreted my Dad’s failure to call as a sign he didn’t love me or miss me. No older than 10-years-old, I didn’t understand there were costs or restrictions to prison phone calls. I thought everybody could talk on the phone any time. My father’s solution to prove his love was to write me a letter every day from prison. He did for one month. The letters came so quickly and so often I couldn’t respond to them all. “Dad, slow down,” I pleaded.
When people are incarcerated, much of society rarely considers the people left behind. For people who are incarcerated, their former lives don’t simply vanish; their families still exist. For their children, those prisoners remain parents. The collateral effects of mass incarceration are far-reaching. Since 1980, the American incarceration rate has more than quadrupled. America is the world’s leader in incarceration, with 2.3 million people currently behind bars. Many of them are parents. In fact, according to a 2010 study, 54 percent of the people serving time in U.S. prisons were the parents of minor children, including more than 120,000 mothers and 1.1 million fathers.
With the rise of incarceration, the number of children with an incarcerated parent has skyrocketed. Seven percent of American children, or over five million children, have had a parent locked up at some point in their lives. Four percent of American children, or 2.7 million, currently have an incarcerated parent; that’s 1 in 28 kids. Thirty years ago, that number was 1 in 125.
Unsurprisingly, there are stark racial disparities, which have widened significantly. While 1 out of every 57 white children has an incarcerated parent, 1 in 28 Latino children, and 1 out of every 9 Black children have a parent behind bars.
Families of color continue to be disproportionately impacted by our criminal legal system. And how families fare in the face of mass incarceration depends a lot on geographic location and socioeconomic status. For example, once arrested, Blacks are far more likely to be convicted. Upon conviction, they are far more likely to receive harsh sentences. Today, they are locked up at nearly six times the rate of whites.
All families, though, no matter their race or class, are forced to deal with the mental, emotional, and financial costs of incarceration, as well as the rules and regulations that dictate their ties to their loved ones. All families, in different ways, are ripped apart at the seams.
For years, I’ve been reporting on the fears, challenges, and small victories of families — Black and white, poor and middle class — struggling to survive within the confines of a brutal system.
We hear often about the impact of mandatory sentencing laws, which have contributed to the lengthy sentences for non-violent drug crimes and incarceration rates. These laws are experienced differently by people like Randall, a young Black father convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. His 8-year-old daughter, Niyah, experiences cognitive dissonance when she thinks about her father. Though she has visited him in prison since she was in diapers, and must bypass barbed-wire fences and walk through metal detectors to visit him, she refuses to say her father is in “prison.” Instead, she repeats the tale she was told years ago, “My dad is in school.” She doesn’t know his sentence or conviction; she just believes he’s coming home soon.
For another family in Jackson, Mississippi, alleged budget deficits and explicit racial bias severed conjugal visits and the Extended Family Visitation program, the most progressive visitation program in the country, upending a family of five in which the father has been in prison for 40 years. Over the decades, his wife has spent so much money on commissary, collect calls, and visiting, that she couldn’t tell you how much it totals. “I know it’s enough to buy a car or a small house,” she told me. Nationally, families spend $1.6 billion annually on commissary items and $1.3 billion annually to receive telephone calls from their incarcerated loved ones.
All families, though, no matter their race or class, are forced to deal with the mental, emotional, and financial costs of incarceration, as well as the rules and regulations that dictate their ties to their loved ones.
For all the ways families are impacted by a loved one’s incarceration, one of the most piercing happens to parents whose children are placed in foster care during their incarceration. For longer prison stays, parents are at great risk of permanently losing their children due to the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA) timeline, a federal law that requires state foster care agencies to begin terminating parental rights whenever a child has lived in foster care for 15 of the last 22 months.
Many states have a deadline of only 12 months. For a parent in prison, this means they are racing against a clock to complete an often-unreasonable case plan, if they even receive communication from child welfare services. But it’s not just long prison stays that can have a catastrophic impact on families. A short jail stay can lead to a parent losing their children as well. That’s what happened to Christina, a young mother in Kentucky.
Kentucky has the 2nd highest female imprisonment rate in the country and the 3rd highest rate of kids who have experienced parental incarceration. In 2016, almost two-thirds of women incarcerated in state prisons were in for nonviolent offenses, many of them drug-related crimes. Christina was one of them. She lived with her long-term partner and two children in a six-bedroom, three-bath home on five acres of land in Kentucky. From the outside, her life seemed perfect, but, she admits, it was a facade. Christina was prescribed opioids to manage her scoliosis, but eventually started abusing them as a method of self-medicating while she was in an abusive relationship.
Everything changed when one Sunday in 2016, Christina was pulled over by police. She was arrested when the officers discovered she had a warrant for a previous failure to appear in court. She called her boyfriend from booking and asked him to take her children to her brother’s home until she was released. Her brother had watched her kids in the past, so she assumed they would be safe there until she could straighten out her warrant. A few days later, though, she was served with papers from child welfare services alleging her 8-year-old daughter had been the victim of mistreatment while in the custody of her brother. Her daughter and 2-year-old son were placed in foster care.
Christina was released from jail 18 days later, and her children remained in foster care. “I still had a job, a house, a car. I worked at a college and they didn’t give me my kids back,” she recalls. “That’s when my life fell apart.” She said she felt hopeless and spiraled deeper into her addiction. “When they didn’t give my kids back, there was no point for me to do anything different,” she says.
After enrolling in a court-ordered residential drug treatment program, Christina was eventually granted weekly one-hour supervised visits with her son two hours away. She didn’t get visitation for her daughter. Her children remained in the same foster home for two years. She struggled with the challenges of re-entry while fighting to preserve her parental rights against the tight ASFA timeline, but she didn’t succeed. Christina soon received a petition from child welfare services to terminate her parental rights.
Christina lost the parental rights to her two children.“The people that have my children, they’re great people and they’ve done great things for my kids. I’m not downplaying that or ungrateful for that at all,” she said. “I don’t even want to take my kids completely from them. I just want to share my kids with them,” she says.
As the number of women incarcerated increases, driven in large part by the opioid epidemic, stories like Christina’s are becoming more common. What does this mean for the hundreds of formerly incarcerated parents across the country, who are struggling with the challenges of re-entry while fighting to preserve their parental rights against the tight ASFA timeline? Do we really want to keep families together and help people heal if we continue to use the blunt tool of permanent separation?
These three families — and mine — are not just outliers trapped within the broken system. Mass incarceration is a national issue impacting millions of families in every state across the country. The various systems, policies, programs, and practices that impact them are implemented without concern of the economic and social costs to them, their communities, or society. They are experiencing something that has become an all-too-common American story. Too many of us have become comfortable with this reality. We cannot continue to look away.
This article originally appeared in Shondaland.com.