As the population in U.S. prisons grows, so too does the number of children with incarcerated parents. In 2008, over 1.7 million children had a parent behind bars. Three quarters of all incarcerated women are mothers. In the last 20 years, the number of children with a father in prison has increased by over 75%.
Parental incarceration can expose children to a multiitude of risk factors. These include material hardship and internalized feelings of fear, shame, and grief. Children of incarcerated parents often have difficulty controliing aggressive, self-destructive, and disruptive behaviors.
The correctional system in its current form fails to acknowledge the needs of the children of those it incarcerates. Parents are regularly sent to prisons far away from their homes, making family visits difficult if not impossible. Prison visiting rooms are typically uninviting for children, and many prisoners are not allowed to have contact visits - children are not able to hug, kiss, or hold the hand of their parents. Further, most states provide little to no resources for children upon the incarceration of their parents.
It is imperative, for the good of both the families whom incarceration directly impacts as well as the communities from whence they come, that policy makers seek to address these issues now.
There are currently nearly 2 million people under the age of 18 with parents who are in prison. As prison populations continue to explode, so too do the numbers of children left without their father or mother at home. While it may be difficult to quantify, it is clear that incarceration of a parent affects the emotional and behavioral well-being of children. Many suffer academic and mental health challenges, in addition to other familial and financial hardships. It is not hard to understand why so many of these children find themselves behind bars as adults. We cannot wait for these problems to grow before taking effective action to address the needs of these children. We must make a strong statement that these young people are not just collateral damage; like all children, children of incarcerated parents have the right to participate in decisions that are made about their lives, the right to be cared for and supported in their struggles, the right to be free from the stigma of their parents' incarceration, and the right to develop strong relationships with their parents.
It is imperative that we address these challenges in meaningful and effective ways in our state. By issuing a statement of legislative intent that parental relationships should be preserved in these childrens' lives whenever possible, you place us on a path toward a state in which our educational, correctional, child welfare, and judicial systems are stronger and more effective. Such a statement would explicitly recognize that each of these institutions affects the lives of children with incarcerated parents, and that their policies, practices, and programs must better serve this vulnerable population. Further, it would acknowledge the need to develop better understanding of the effects of parental incarceration on children by collecting, analyzing, and sharing data, so that our state's resources can be efficiently used to best serve their needs.
By responding to the hardships that these children face, and creating systems that can support them more effectively, you can help change individual lives, support stronger communities, and build a more vibrant, inclusive, and productive society.