The saying is all too familiar: Do the crime, do the time.
But in America’s age of mass incarceration, millions of children are suffering the consequences of their parents’ sentences. Incarceration not only breaks up families but also the building blocks of our communities and nation.
As a child I remember constantly looking at a photo of my mother, who is holding me while wearing an orange jumpsuit, and reminiscing about my first visit. It was like the more I stared into the picture, the more I felt connected to her in some way. Her cherry blossom scent seemed to linger in the room, making it hard to believe she was gone. I would wait by the door hoping she would walk in and hug her little girl so tight that she wouldn’t be able to let go. I was so full of ideas for what we would do when her “time out” was over: baking, reading, bedtime stories, and coloring were just a few activities I couldn’t wait to enjoy with my mother. Unfortunately, I was unable to experience those things with her. She was in and out of prison most of my life due to her drug addiction and prostitution. As I got older, she sent me letters promising to get it right, while I became numb to the fact that she was never coming home. But at the same time I never lost hope in her release. This affected me in a huge way, because my mother’s sentence was no longer just hers but mine as well.
I am just one of the five million American children who have had a parent incarcerated at some point in their lives. More than 2.7 million American children and youths have at least one parent in federal or state prison (many more have parents and other family members in local jails), and one-third of them will turn 18 while a parent is behind bars, according to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated. The obvious impact of having a parent incarcerated is the absence of that parent from a child’s day to day life. A child needs their parent to help mold them into the young adult they are expected to be. There is no question that our country’s practice of mass incarceration is flawed, costly and in need of change.
Those solutions start with counseling and better programs to help support a child’s relationship with their parent during their incarceration. We need programs in prisons to encourage family relationships or even a chance to video conference with the children regardless of the parent conviction. This will help the child keep a connection with their parent instead of creating a disconnect like it did for me as a child. I wish I had the opportunity to visit more with my mother and experience building a relationship with her. Also, when a parent is released from prison they should be helped to find employment and other ways to reconnect with their family and community not get left behind in an endless cycle with no solution.
Myesha Johnson works at A New Way of Life as an office associate.