The Children of the Incarcerated

by Reihan Salam

Piper Kerman, author of the well-regarded prison memoir Orange is the New Black, discusses a new federal initiative to shift female prisoners from one correctional facility to another:

This added geographic separation may as well be a second sentence for these women, who already have to make it through prison with limited visits from family, and for their children, who still need and want their moms. A mother’s incarceration has a devastating effect on her family, and experts say that maintaining contact with a parent in prison is critical to a child’s well-being. One in 28 children has a parent in prison today, and Danbury houses the mothers of at least 700 children.

The Bureau of Prisons, which is part of the Justice Department, plans to send most women from Danbury to a prison in Alabama, and possibly to other ones farther afield. For many families these new locations might as well be the moon.

A recent Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that 1.2 million inmates, out of 2.3 million people in jail or prison, are parents, and that 2.7 million minor children have an incarcerated parent, or 1-in-28 American children (3.6 percent). “Just 25 years ago,” Katie Reilly writes, “the number was 1-in-125.”

Keep in mind, however, that the 1-in-28 number refers to American children with a parent who is currently incarcerated, i.e., this number does not take into account the share of American children with a parent who is an ex-offender. We don’t have very good data on whether the children of ex-offenders are substantially worse off than other similarly situated children, as the ex-offender population tends to face a number of other disadvantages, e.g., ex-offenders are disproportionately less-skilled, etc. We do know, however, that the experience of incarceration has long-term economic effects, which Steven Raphael summarized in the Fall-Winter 2007–08 issue of Focus, a newsletter published by the University of Wisconsin’s Institute for Research on Poverty:

Incarcerated men fail to accumulate employment experience while incarcer- ated due to the interruption caused by the incarceration spell. The severity of this interruption depends on the expected amount of time served as well as the likelihood of serving subsequent prison terms. During the late 1990s the average newly committed prisoner faced a maximum sentence of three years and a minimum sen- tence of one year, with most serving approximately two years on their first commitment to prison. However, nearly two-thirds of former-inmates are rearrested within a few years of release from prison and a substantial majority will serve another prison term. For many of- fenders the years between ages 18 and 30 are characterized by multiple short spells in and out of prison punctuated by short periods of time on the outside. These dynamics of prison entry and reentry certainly inhibit the accumulation of meaningful sustained employment ex- perience during a time in a young person’s life when the returns to experience are greatest.

Moreover, former inmates are often stigmatized in the legitimate labor market post-release by their criminal history records. In particular, the interruptions occa- sioned by prison time are compounded by the greater difficulty ex-prisoners may experience in finding a job. Some occupations are closed to felons under local, state, and federal law. In many states, employers can be held liable for the criminal actions of their employees. As a consequence, firms may use formal and informal screen- ing tools to weed those with a criminal record out of the applicant pool. And in general, employers are averse to hiring those with criminal records. Over 60 percent of employers surveyed in one study, the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, would “probably not” or “definitely not” hire applicants with records, whereas only 8 percent would “probably not” or “definitely not” hire current or former welfare recipients. A study of hiring practices in a Midwestern city found that applicants who admitted to a criminal record were half as likely to be called back for an interview as matched applicants without any criminal history.

So at the very least, it seems plausible that incarceration rates are depressing earnings for many American parents, which in turn will tend to increase dependence on means-tested transfers. Raphael’s analysis strikes me as a strong argument in favor of Stephanos Bibas’s call for requiring prisoners to work, to prevent skills from atrophying and to generate income that can be shared with spouses and minor children. 

And to return to Kerman’s op-ed, she references a new program that aims to replace incarceration with tight supervision, as envisioned in Graeme Wood’s “Prisons Without Walls” article:

There is an alternative to moving prisoners far from their families. This past spring, an ambitious new program, JusticeHome, was started by the Women’s Prison Association in New York City, on whose board I serve. It aims to do the opposite of what the bureau plans: It will allow some women who plead guilty to felonies to remain in their homes with their children. The women will report regularly to court and will be visited several times weekly by case managers to make sure they receive supervision and guidance about jobs, education, their homes and children. The cost of JusticeHome, which is being paid by the city, will be about $15,000 per woman, far less than it would cost to incarcerate her for one year.

JusticeHome seems like a smart approach for bettering the lives of the children of offenders, and for helping offenders become productive members of society. The fact that it has the potential to yield substantial cost savings makes it even more attractive.