America leads the world in incarceration with roughly 2.2 million people currently in prisons and jails nationwide - a 500% increase over the last 40 years.
Nearly two-thirds of those in prison are people of color. In fact, black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated as white men. There is a one in three chance that a black man born in 2001 will end up incarcerated during his lifetime, according to the Sentencing Project.
An increasing concern is the number of women incarcerated. Since 1980 the number of women incarcerated has jumped by more 750%.
The impact on those incarcerated is obvious. However, the impact of incarceration reverberates beyond prison walls. Kristin Turney, a University of California-Irvine sociologist wrote that the impact on children of incarcerated parents is “an overlooked and unintended consequence of mass incarceration.”
Turney’s research in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior compared children under age 18 with similar socioeconomic characteristics and family backgrounds and found that having a parent in prison or jail was linked to poor health; ADHD; behavioral or conduct problems; learning disabilities; anxiety; and developmental delays.
The scope of the problem is significant. Between 50% to 75% of incarcerated individuals report having a minor child. According to the National Institute of Justice, the number of children who have experienced parental incarceration at least once in their childhood may range from 1.7 million to 2.7 million. If this estimate is on target, 11% of all children may be at risk.
The economic impact on families of incarcerated parents is profound. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than half of fathers in state prison report being the primary wage-earner in their family. Many families affected by incarceration were already economically disadvantaged.
The increased economic stress on families impacted by incarceration is due to several factors. One is the extra expenses incurred by families trying to stay connected with a parent or loved one in prison. A partner on the outside is often saddled with legal fees, the loss of an additional income or their own job loss stemming from increased work/childcare conflict. They must then somehow deal with new costs such as exorbitant prison telephone fees, travel costs - often great distances - to visit incarcerated partners, and the desire to support loved ones with supplies and money. Financial strife is one of the most frequently cited sources of stress or strain among partners of incarcerated individuals.
Incarcerated mothers are also an alarming problem. According to the Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women increased from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 225,060 in 2017.
Nearly two-thirds of mothers in state prisons were living with their children prior to their incarceration. The separation of mother and child can be quite dramatic for both parent and child. To further exacerbate the problem many of those mothers were single parents. The children of those women are now uprooted from their home, often with limited contact with their mothers. According to Eric Martin of National Institute of Justice, the research on children of incarcerated mothers suggests “a host of negative child outcomes, including poor academic performance, classroom behavior problems, suspension, and delinquency.”
As estimated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the annual cost of incarceration in the United States is $81 billion. That figure addresses only the cost of operating prisons, jails, parole, and probation - leaving out policing and court costs, and costs paid by families to maintain relationships with loved ones.
In a new report, the Prison Policy Initiative found that mass incarceration costs state and federal governments and American families $100 billion more each year than previously thought.
Setting aside the enormous costs, policymakers should consider what has been achieved by the explosion of incarceration over the last half-century - and its negative impact on children and parents alike?
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.