View: The tragedy when parents are incarcerated

Editor’s Note: Ashish Prashar, is a board member of the nonprofit group Just Leadership USA, which works to achieve racial and social justice. He also serves on the advisory board of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, a nonprofit organization that seeks greater fairness throughout the criminal justice system. He tweets @Ash_Prashar. The views expressed in this article are his own. Read more views on CNN.


When I was 17, some friends and I were caught shoplifting clothes from a high-end department store in London. I was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of theft. It was my first offence, but the judge was unforgiving: I was sentenced to a year in prison.

That was two decades ago. Earlier this year, on the 20th anniversary of my release, I was given the most monumental gift: the birth of my first child.

Hearing that first cry when my son was born, hugging him in the delivery room, and holding his tiny hand as he fell asleep in post-partum recovery made me deeply grateful that he chose my wife and me.

He is now just shy of a year old. Like his mom, he’s a precocious walker, keeping us on our toes as he walks around the apartment with more confidence each day. I was able to see him go from crawling to walking and all the other moments along the way, because I live in freedom.

But I can’t help but think about the people who can’t have these moments with their children because of our inhumane system of mass incarceration. The birth of my son has unlocked many new feelings not only about my own time in prison, but also about my the way parents and children across this country are cruelly separated by incarceration.

Admittedly, my view is somewhat at odds with the “lock ’em up and throw away the key” attitude espoused by some law and order die-hards. But I think lawmakers — and society at large — should lean whenever possible to make it much easier for children and incarcerated parents to stay in touch.

Families should not be torn apart as a result of a conviction. Of course our criminal justice system should definitely focus on holding people accountable, but in a way that doesn’t perpetuate harm. The act of incarceration itself often causes more harm to more people than the crime itself. Even for people convicted of serious felonies, society invests in them becoming better people — including being better parents.

There are examples where efforts are made to allow physical contact between prisoners and their children. In fact, three states—Connecticut, California, New York—as well as Washington, D.C., have programs that allow extended visits between inmates and their family members. We in the justice reform field understand the vital role that visitation can play in the mental health and emotional well-being of the incarcerated and how it increases the chances of success when that person is released.

Unfortunately, moves to make it easier for prisoners to connect with their loved ones are not being adopted everywhere. Last fall, Montana suspended visits for people in its prisons due to staff shortages, and officials said those visits remain suspended until further notice. In Nashville, in-person visits were terminated during the Covid-19 outbreak and have not yet resumed.

I understood the deep loss caused by family separation during my incarceration as a teenager. Locked behind bars, I saw humiliation and beatings. I witnessed older prisoners putting younger ones on each other. So-called prison officers took food, handcuffed youths, made racist comments and verbally and physically assaulted us, trying to get us to react. They even put me in solitary confinement for a short time for my own protection. The prison was not created to rehabilitate – quite the opposite.

I was extremely lucky: The relatives managed to secure my release after four months. My time in prison didn’t break me, but it changed me. I have spent much of my working life in government and non-profit organizations, focusing much of that time in initiatives that help the incarcerated. And of those incarcerated, the incarcerated parents are in front of me.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation on the planet, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. And we keep them imprisoned for an unreasonably long time. More than half of prisoners – 57% – are serving sentences of 10 years or more, according to the Criminal Justice Council. Of people serving prison terms, one in seven is serving a life sentence. These kinds of prolonged separations make the idea of ​​being able to cultivate soul-sustaining family bonds seem like a pipe dream.

According to the US Department of Justice, in 2016, 47% of men incarcerated in state or federal prisons and 58% of incarcerated women are parents of minor children. Most people in state prisons are incarcerated 100 miles or more from home, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while inmates held in federal custody are incarcerated, on average, 500 miles from home.

Given these vast distances, it seems highly unlikely that these people see their children regularly during their time in prison. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 42% of parents in state prisons who had minor children received in-person visitation from their children since they were admitted.

I am under no illusions that reunions between prisoners and their children are possible or even desirable in all these cases. But every year, in the work I do, I meet so many young people who have been separated from their parents because of the violence of incarceration, many of whom would like to restore some kind of bond with them. Our country disproportionately criminalizes people for mistakes. And the punishment is compounded when they are demonized as bad parents and kept from their children.

It is time to recognize that when we incarcerate parents, we do potentially irreparable damage to their families. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Department of Justice, found that having an incarcerated parent has been linked to a range of negative outcomes in a variety of areas, including behavior and mental health, homelessness, school performance and future interactions with the criminal justice system.

We need to find ways to keep people in the community and provide the resources to stop the cycle that fuels mass incarceration. And as deeply as the parents suffer, the 1.25 million children left behind to deal with the pain of separation from their incarcerated parents often also suffer severe emotional damage. Their individual stories of pain are powerful evidence of the urgent need for reform.

We must challenge laws and policies that criminalize parents—especially the poor and those of color. Policies that tear apart families and reduce the safety and well-being of our communities are a horrible and inhumane part of our present. We must ensure that these policies are not part of our children’s future.

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