Addressing Families Separated by Mass Incarceration

Children with a parent in prison are more likely to experience mental-health problems and face additional education challenges. Boardhead/Wikimedia Commons

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Children with a parent in prison are more likely to experience mental-health problems and face additional education challenges. (Boardhead/Wikimedia Commons)YPSILANTI, Mich. — For weeks, Americans have been gripped by reports of young children being separated from their parents along the U.S.-Mexico border, and human rights activists are pointing to the nation’s mass incarceration system as another ongoing example of families torn apart.

Natalie Holbrook, with the American Friends Service Committee, said infants born behind bars are separated from their mothers almost immediately, and many end up going directly into the foster care system.

“We know how important it is for skin-to-skin contact, but babies will be taken away,” Holbrook said. “Even though the World Health Organization says that breast milk is best for vulnerable infants and babies, they are not allowed access to breast milk.”

Having a parent in prison can impact children’s mental health, social behavior and educational prospects. The trauma and stress of disrupted family life also can be compounded by the social stigma faced by children with parents behind bars.

Demetrius Titus, also with the American Friends Service Committee, was sentenced to two life sentences at the peak of the nation’s war on drugs for possession and intent to distribute a controlled substance. He was 22 years old at the time, had no previous record and was enrolled in college. He also had two young daughters.

“You can write, you can call, you can have visits, it’s still an extremely difficult situation because it’s a broken bond,” Titus said. “Pretty much having to watch them grow up from a distance probably was the most singularly difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with in my life.”

Holbrook suggested the roots of mass incarceration in the U.S. can be traced back to the days of slavery, where children were routinely sold and separated from families. Racial minorities are more likely than whites to be arrested, convicted and face higher sentences.

Still, Holbrook said, many moms and dads are resilient, and have been able to do a good job of parenting behind bars.

“But it’s still not like being able to have your mom or dad kiss you goodnight, and be there if you wake up sick in the middle of the night,” she said. “It’s not the normal family involvement that we need to create healthy and whole communities.”

Holbrook said taxpayer money that currently fuels the $182 billion annual prison economy should be redirected to education, mental health and substance-abuse treatment.

The U.S. puts more people behind bars than any other nation. Since 1970, the number of incarcerated people has grown by nearly 700 percent, to more than 2 million people, far outpacing population growth and crime.