A Prison Sentence Impacts Many

Alya Bohr, Columnist

It’s not news to say that our criminal justice system is broken. The United States constitutes 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of that population are imprisoned individuals, the majority of which are people of color. There are many victims of America’s unjust system of mass incarceration, but there is a particular demographic that is deeply affected yet often goes unacknowledged: the children of those who are incarcerated.

Approximately five million children in the U.S. have a parent that was incarcerated at some point in their lives. Not only are these children faced with the obvious hurdle of their parent’s absence in their lives, but they must also contend with a myriad of other struggles. As a report by The Casey Foundation explains, “Having a parent incarcerated is a stressful, traumatic experience of the same magnitude as abuse, domestic violence and divorce.” Families often are often faced with significant financial burdens and children are forced to take on more responsibilities, which can come at the cost of their education and other activities. These children may enter the foster care system or suffer abuse and neglect from their remaining parent or guardian.

Maybe the hardest part of having a parent in prison or jail, however, is the stigma attached to it. Our society is brimming with judgment and misinformed perceptions about what makes a “criminal.” We so easily forget the nuance and complexity of the human condition, and often ascribe categorical definitions of “bad” and “evil” to these people. This judgment is detrimentally extended to their kids, as well. People may assume that the children of incarcerated individuals are irresponsible, uneducated and engaged in a life of crime. The truth, of course, is that these children are not defined by their parents’ actions, but are unique individuals in their own right.

This summer I was a counselor at a camp for children of incarcerated parents, and I found myself continually impressed by the children’ resilience, strong spirits and kind hearts in the face of the pain and adversity they face. Never before have I met such a special group of textured, fractured, beautiful people. There were children like Neri, who shared her brownie with other campers despite the fact that her family struggles with food insecurity. Or Envee, who spoke of how her mom told her not to mention her dad’s incarceration to anyone because her classmates already tease her for not being white. In fact, it was common to hear the campers speak of the shame they carry from the stigma of incarceration.

There were the older girls, like Mariah and Leila, who opened their arms and hearts to the little girls, welcoming them in, and even to me, the new counselor with a privileged life and no experience to truly understand their lives. There was Omar, who had never been swimming before and who shrieked with delight after his feet touched the water, quickly scrambling up the ladder and onto the dock, only to do it all again and again. These children have been through so much and yet they continue to shine. They are the definition of strength.

Additionally, nearly half the counselors were children of incarcerated parents themselves, and they were some of the most inspiring people I’ve met in my life. Smart, kind and wounded, but strong, they showed me what it means to build beauty out of rubble, to fight for a good life in the face of hardship and to love fiercely in spite of loss.

Letting generalized beliefs about entire groups of people guide our understanding of them is never beneficial. In fact, it’s one of the most harmful things we can do. Children of incarcerated parents are too often unwittingly punished for crimes they didn’t commit and lives that are not their own. Such judgment and stigmatization is deeply painful and only serves to push these vulnerable children to the fringes of society. We must see their realities, their struggles and their strengths. We must let go of binaries that prevent us from appreciating the humanity of criminals. We must learn to know people for who they are, not who society imagines them to be.