While some kids will spend Sunday tossing a ball with their dads and enjoying family cookouts, far too many will be separated from the love and care of their incarcerated fathers. Around 5.1 million children in the United States have had a parent in jail or prison at some point, according to research from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Mass incarceration has filled prisons with fathers, overwhelmingly men of color, who make up the largest population of incarcerated parents. In state and federal prisons, about 45 percent of men age 24 or younger are fathers.
The impact of mass incarceration on our most vulnerable population is only beginning to be fully documented, but new research captures what communities have long known: When it comes to children who have lost parents to prisons, #BlackDadsMatter.
For too long, the care and support of black fathers has been minimized in larger conversations about mass incarceration. The reality is that fathers play a critical role in their families, regardless of how those families are structured. More than half of incarcerated parents provided the primary financial support for their families, even if they did not live together.
A New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services survey (pdf) found that 85 percent of incarcerated parents had significant involvement with their children before being incarcerated, including 81 percent who reported physically caring for their children, 80 percent who contributed financial support and 74 percent who were involved in decision-making about their children’s daily activities.
The loss of care and support is compounded by extra costs associated with having family imprisoned, such as travel costs for face-to-face visits and the cost of collect calls, as well as children’s limited access to telephones, as outlined in a new report from the Ella Baker Center. The stress and trauma of losing a parent to incarceration is the same magnitude of the trauma associated with abuse, domestic violence and divorce.
Fathers also suffer. One of the authors of this piece experienced a painful separation from his first child. “I was sent to a prison that was 10 hours away from New York City, where my son and his mother lived,” says Glenn E. Martin. “Traveling to see me was difficult and expensive, and I was filled with guilt over the burden visiting me placed on my loved ones. As a result, I saw my son only five times in the six years I was incarcerated.
“I know now that my absence and the infrequency of our contact led my son to think that I didn't care about him, and this has had a lasting impact on our relationship,” he continued. “I am still working hard to win his trust. The system could have done so much more to support a strong bond between me and my child—a bond that would have been beneficial not only to us, but to our family and to our community."
Daniel Lorea, a 20-year-old currently incarcerated father of a 4-year-old daughter, describes the pain of separation from his child: “I’m on the inside of a fence that keeps me from the world. I am shackled when it comes to ways of showing affection for my daughter. I get 10-minute phone calls and 1-hour-and-30-minute visits, not even close to the time I need to say the things I need and want to say to her.”
There is growing bipartisan consensus on the failure of mass incarceration. But if we want to address some of its most lasting harms, we must prioritize the needs of children.
Presentencing diversion is one option that allows for the needs of children to be considered alongside other factors in determining alternatives to incarceration. In 2010, Washington state passed the Parenting Sentencing Alternative, which allows parents of minor children to avoid prison, diverting them to supervision at home so that they may continue to parent. The Family and Offender Sentencing Alternative allows judges to waive a sentence for eligible offenders who have physical custody of their children and instead impose community custody, along with treatment and programming.
These approaches should be replicated and strengthened to better account for contemporary parenting arrangements. Narrowing eligibility only to those parents in whose custody the children reside disregards widespread arrangements of involvement for parents who do not with live with their children and who are frequently fathers.
We can do better. When it comes to our children, #BlackDadsMatter. We need more diversion approaches, and a more comprehensive conception of parental roles, particularly those of fathers, that is reflected in the eyes and hearts of children. Only by bringing the rights of children to the forefront will we be able to make a dent in the legacy of mass incarceration for generations to come.
The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.
Patricia Allard is a senior research and policy analyst at Justice Strategies. She is also an attorney who currently runs parental decarceration campaigns—“Family Unity 4 All”–in key states and at the federal level. Glenn E. Martin is the founder of JustLeadershipUSA, an organization dedicated to cutting the U.S. correctional population in half by 2030. JLUSA empowers people most affected by incarceration to drive policy reform. Follow him on Twitter.