the Jailhouse is Far from Home
Kids with parents behind bars share the pain of incarceration.
By Nell Bernstein
a sixth-grader in Ohio brought a handgun to school and held his
classmates hostage. He didn't shoot anybody. It wasn't his plan.
After a teacher intervened and gave him a hug, he revealed his true
purpose. He pulled a gun because he wanted to go to jail to be with
his mother, who is serving time for a drug-related probation violation.
That day, she was scheduled to be transferred from a local jail
to the Ohio Reformatory for Women in Marysville, 150 miles away
from her son.
There are 1.5 million children in this country who have lost a parent
to jail or prison. The incarceration fever that caught hold in the
1980s and has yet to break (the United States held a record 2 million
people behind bars at last count) has left a generation of children
in limbo. Many will spend their childhood in foster homes, with
aging grandparents or with other relatives or friends. Often --
very often -- they bounce from one short-term caretaker to another.
One boy, now 16, was 9 years old when the police came to his door.
They arrested his mother, who used drugs, but left him and his infant
brother behind. (He speculates now that they must have thought there
was another adult in the house.) For two weeks, he took care of
the baby and stayed inside, waiting for his mother to come back.
He didn't really know how to change a diaper, but he thinks he did
OK. Once, he remembers, he burned himself cooking. Eventually, a
neighbor stopped by and called the authorities and he and his brother
went into separate foster homes. He didn't see his mother again
until he was a teenager.
Children may not understand the rationale behind mandatory sentencing
laws that take their parents away from them for years or decades.
They may not understand the "conspiracy" provisions that
put their mothers behind bars for picking the wrong boyfriend. They
may not understand the "war on drugs" that has swelled
the prison population without reducing the availability of drugs
in their neighborhoods. They may not understand why their mom is
in a prison hours away, where they cannot go visit her. (About half
of all incarcerated women never receive visits from their children,
often because the women are housed in remote facilities.)
They may not understand these policies, but they live with their
impact every day. No sooner did the news get out that another child
had brought a gun to school than Al Gore and George W. Bush weighed
in from the campaign trail. Gore stood up for trigger locks. Bush
-- an advocate of more prisons and longer sentences -- proposed
mentors for the children of prisoners. If Bush were able to pull
them out of a hat, 1.5 million mentors would be nice. But mentors
are no substitute for mothers.
The war on drugs has had a particularly devastating impact on women,
who have become the fastest growing, though least violent, segment
of the prison population. The number of female inmates has tripled
since mandatory sentencing laws were enacted in the 1980s, and the
increase shows no signs of abating.
About 80 percent of female prisoners are mothers, and most of those
are single parents -- the primary source of care for the children
they leave behind. Before mandatory sentencing, judges could take
children's needs into account when they decided where and how a
drug-offending mother paid for her crimes. Now, federal statutes
not only disallow such flexibility, they actually make it explicit
that the responsibilities of mothering are not "ordinarily
relevant" to sentencing decisions.
Incarceration, of course, is not the only thing that takes parents
from their children. Drugs can do it, too. The children, in whose
name this drug war is being fought, want their mothers off drugs;
but not if it means they lose them in the process. Some states and
private organizations have recognized this in creating programs
that work to get women off drugs and keep, or reunite, them with
their children at the same time.
Seventeen states now have community facilities where mothers can
do all or part of their time along with their young children, instead
of in prisons hundreds of miles away from them. The "Girl Scouts
Beyond Bars" program has created troops in several states that
meet in the prisons, where inmates and their children can eat, make
art and sell cookies together.
These programs, and others like them scattered across the country,
affirm something that those who advocate conventional incarceration
fail to recognize -- that the parent-child bond, in addition to
its private importance to the individuals involved, is a social
asset that should be valued and preserved. If 1.5 million children
have a parent behind bars, it goes beyond personal tragedy; it's
a community concern.
When we incarcerate a drug offender, we do so, at least in theory,
not because she is a menace from whom society must be protected
at any cost, but because we believe she is caught in a destructive
cycle that must be interrupted. But rather than being interrupted,
that cycle is being perpetuated into the next generation.
About half of all juvenile hall inmates have a parent who has been
incarcerated. The Ohio boy -- who was charged with inducing panic,
aggravated menace, carrying a concealed weapon and carrying a firearm
in a school zone -- could, if convicted, be behind bars until he
turns 21. Not every child who loses a parent to prison will express
his hurt as dramatically as he did, but one way or another, they
will make their sorrow known.
We say we are a nation that believes in families -- we say it with
particular vehemence each election season -- but we're not. What
we really believe in is individuals -- as in "individual responsibility";
as in "every man (woman and child) for himself." Mom screwed
up? Make her pay, regardless of the effect it may have on her children
and the communities in which those children live.
We are able to lock people up in the numbers that we do only so
long as we see them as useless, extraneous individuals whom our
society simply does not need. But the vast majority of female prisoners
are mothers and caretakers; they are needed in the most fundamental
way. When I told the 16-year-old who had lost his mother at age
9 what the boy in Ohio had done and why, he had no comment, only
a question: "Did they let him see his mother?"
About the writer: Nell Bernstein is a media
fellow with the Center on Crime, Communities and Culture of the
Open Society Institute.
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