The Number of Children With Incarcerated Parents Is on the Rise
I’ve experienced first hand the stigma and shame associated with an incarcerated loved one. My father was in and out of prison during my early 20s, and I watched as addiction and the prison system kept him trapped in a vicious and unbeatable cycle.
At the time, I didn’t know who to talk to about my fears and anxieties. There was no one else who could relate to my experience, who knew what it was like to have a father in prison. I felt ashamed to talk about it with friends who had healthy relationships with their parents and embarrassed by my father’s behavior. I was stuck in my silence, unable to grieve or receive support, leaving me alienated and alone.
But I’m not the only one who has experienced the devastating effects of watching your loved one go to prison. The United States has the highest rate per capita of prison inmates compared to any other country in the world. With 2.3 million people incarcerated, it’s a big problem that requires big solutions to fix.
The Importance of Families
The separation of families because of incarceration leads to a painful ripple effect that punishes not just the offender, but everyone who loves them, too. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 92 percent of prison inmates and 82.1 percent of inmates in jail claim that they’ll rely on their family to help them get back on their feet when they’re released.
Family is a powerful tool that leads to stronger bonds, but the prison system often breaks those bonds and makes it even more difficult and isolating for the inmate to access support, especially if they're incarcerated far away from home. In reality, incarceration has the power to rip apart a family and wreak havoc on the lives of especially young children who have a parent in prison.
I’m One of Millions With a Family Member in Prison
I may have felt alone while my father was in prison, but there are millions that are facing life with a loved one behind bars. In 2018, the Family History of Incarceration Survey (FamHIS) was distributed by the American Sociological Association. The survey offered an in-depth look at the impact incarceration has on families across the nation.
According to the data presented, 45 percent of Americans have had an immediate family member incarcerated, for any length of time. Black families reported an incarceration rate of 63 percent, caucasian families identified an incarceration rate of 42 percent, and Hispanic families reported a rate of 48 percent.
Because those numbers are so high, it made me wonder: How many people do I know who have actually faced similar situations as me?
Incarcerated Parents on the Rise
The National Resource Center on Children & Families of the Incarcerated says that children with incarcerated fathers and mothers are on the rise, representing about 2.7 million (or 3.6 percent) of the total U.S. child population, in a 2014 report. That number becomes larger if you consider the approximately 10 million children that have experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives.
The study also shows that parental incarceration has a direct impact on children, from their emotional well-being, financial security and family stability. It states, “While many of the risk factors children of incarcerated parents experience may be related to parental substance abuse, mental health, inadequate education or other challenges, parental incarceration increases the risk of children living in poverty or experiencing household instability independent of these other problems.”
The U.S. Is Slowly Trying to Fix the Problem
While the U.S. continues to be the world leader in the number of incarcerated people within one country, according to the World Prison Brief, the country is slowly starting to see a decline in these rates.
According to a report published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2018, at the end of 2016, an estimated 6.6 million people (one in 38 persons) in the United States were under some kind of correctional supervision (including probation and parole). That number was on a steady decline for a steady decade, compared to 2006, when the total was 7.2 million.
The Beginning of Our Father-Daughter Relationship
Needless to say, my father’s brush with the law is a story that’s unfortunately been told time and time again. My parents separated when my mom was seven months pregnant with me. By then, my dad was already an addict and serial cheater, and his behavior was toxic to their relationship. My single mom was a strong and powerful woman, and she did everything that she could to make me forget that my dad walked out on us. But none of it seemed to lessen the ache I felt.
My dad was around when he wanted to be, but never emotionally available or interested. He flitted in and out of my life at a rate that pleased him, watching me on the occasional Saturday, but the gap between us was palpable. He didn’t know me, and I didn’t know him.
What He Didn’t Know
He was an invisible force throughout my entire childhood. His absence weighed heavy on me, during the big and monumental moments, and the seemingly small and insignificant moments, too. My dad missed every single graduation, school play, parent-teacher meeting, sports game and school dance that I ever attended.
When I learned to ride a bike, first drove a car, aced university exams and won medals at field hockey, you bet my dad was absent and unavailable. He also missed out on the tears shed over scraped-up knees, the school-girl arguments that I had with my friends and the joyful days I spent running in the sprinkler.
Learning About My Father’s Time in Jail
I didn't know the extent of my dad's faults until I was older. When I was a preteen, I overheard a conversation about my father being arrested for drunk driving. My mom talked about my dad going to jail on multiple occasions for DUIs, and I was shocked. I had never known someone who had been arrested before, and now I was learning that my own father spent multiple nights in jail.
I was hurt, angry and embarrassed. I hated that he was a serial drunk driver. It sickened me, and once I knew, I refused to drive in a car with him. My strength and resolve was mighty for such a young girl. I didn’t share my feelings about my father’s jail time with anyone else, though, locking away my own shame with a proverbial key.
My Family Grows
When I became a mother, I went through the grief of my absent father all over again. How could someone abandon their child the way he did? I didn’t understand it. Watching my husband dote on, adore and care for our child helped to soothe my aching spirit, but it also became an obvious indicator of what fatherhood was meant to be.
My family grew, and my dad remained unavailable, unwilling to atone for his past sins by pursuing a relationship with his grandchildren. Then, when my father was in his 60s, he fell out of a third-story window — and he survived. I frantically drove two hours to visit him at the hospital. His survival felt like a sign — there was unfinished business between him and me.
Not Finding Him
Weeks after my father miraculously survived his fall, I received a phone call that turned my world upside down. My brother Chris died, and nobody could find my father. We called his parole officer, his addict friends, and we looked for him on the streets. He was somewhere, walking around, unaware that his oldest son was gone.
When he didn’t show up to Chris’ funeral, I ached for my dad and all he could never be for me. In the few short days that he’d known Chris had died, he managed to end up back in jail. By now, I didn’t know what my dad was in jail for, but it seemed he was there more frequently, constantly breaching his parole and landing back in jail for longer and harsher sentences.
The Impact of My Father’s Imprisonment
I spent months grieving my brother’s death and calling every few days to see whether my dad was still in jail. Some months he was incarcerated, and some months he wasn't. The not knowing was difficult. If he was in prison, then I knew he was fed, hopefully clean and had somewhere to sleep. If he wasn’t in prison, he was likely on the streets, using again, but at least he was free.
I researched the maximum-security penitentiary he was sent to and discovered the realities of how dangerous it was. My anxiety and fear increased, imagining my small and frail father, in his 60s, stuck in a violent situation. It was during these months that I was faced with the pure love that I had for my father. I saw his sickness and addiction, and I began to forgive him for abandoning me.
Dealing With an Incarcerated Loved One
Looking back, I wish I had sought professional support and support from others who could have related to my experience when my dad was in prison. Psychologist Dr. Nancy Irwin emphasizes the importance of honesty when navigating a family member’s incarceration.
“The healthiest way to cope with this separation is for the inmate to be honest: Accept responsibility, make amends when possible and commit to living in integrity going forward. This gives the inmate's children permission to make mistakes themselves and grow from it, to understand addictions and to learn how to make better choices,” adds Irwin.
Finding Support for Incarcerated Families
Hiding in secrecy and shame is one of the least helpful things someone can do when their loved one goes to prison. I wish I had said that I needed help and support, but I was too afraid and embarrassed to talk about what my family was going through.
Dr. Irwin says that loved ones may choose to visit their incarcerated family member, send care packages and letters, and get connected with their own support group. She also highlights the importance of finding others who can validate the emotions you’re feeling when you experience the turmoil of your loved one going to prison. All of these steps are helpful in being fully supported when facing life with an incarcerated family member.
Calling My Dad in Prison
I spoke to my dad only once while he was in prison, but I never visited him. We tripped over our words in awkwardness, months having passed since we last spoke, and so many years of unspoken words hanging between us. I don’t remember much about our conversation, but I remember that he said he was embarrassed. He didn’t want to talk to me, not because he didn’t want to be there for me, but because he didn’t want me to know he was in prison.
I didn’t want my dad to be embarrassed and ashamed, but how could I expect any less when I had my own shame to deal with?
He Committed a Crime, and I Still Love Him
It took my dad committing a crime for me to finally forgive him. I was never able to completely confirm what the crime was, but I know enough to know he is flawed, deeply. But he is the product of the system — one in which it’s not difficult to breach your parole, and once you do, you end up back behind bars. I also acknowledge that his family history — an abusive and toxic upbringing — was drowned out by drugs, alcohol and bad choices. I don’t excuse my father for his crimes, but I finally accept him for who he is.
I still don’t know where he is half the time, and he continues to remain trapped in the system, prison one breach of parole away. I wish my dad would change, and I wish we could have the relationship I have always longed for, the type of relationship that I deserve. For now, I wait, believing that as long as we’re both alive that it’s never too late to start again.
And for good measure, I still have the number of the jail on speed dial.