More Harmful than Divorce or the Death

More Harmful than Divorce or the Death

Financial instability, health and behavioral issues, separation, fear, anger, loss, hopelessness, desperation, and stress all emotional experiences that no child should have to face, but when you look closely you’ll see a population of children who face these issues every day. Who are these children? They are the 2.7 million children in the United States with an incarcerated parent.

A study published in the September edition of Journal of Health and Social Behavior considered the effects of incarceration on the children of inmates. The results showed that incarceration may be more harmful to children than divorce or the death of a parent. With incarceration comes mental and economic stress on a family. More than half of the men and women incarcerated in the US claimed to have been the primary provider before their incarceration. This change in the family dynamic is damaging to all individuals involved. With two thirds of the incarcerated parents in prison for nonviolent crimes, this makes the change and stress also unnecessary.

Consider the experiences of the children of William Tank Black. In 2000, William’s family was successful and thriving, but on the morning of July 5 that would all change. William was arrested and incarcerated for 104 months. His 21 year old son, whom he had only recently connected with, turned to drugs and was arrested himself. William’s 14 year old daughter, once an A-student, became depressed, quite her full ride to college, and became pregnant by the age of 19. His middle son, 16 at the time of William’s arrest, had to drop out of high school and get his GED because of the scandal surrounding his family. And finally, William’s 4 year old son had to spend some of the formative years of his childhood without his father.  While watching the fall of his children during incarceration, William was also faced with the hard truth about marriage while a partner is in jail. The odds that a marriage will end in divorce when a partner is incarcerated go up 32 percent, whether that divorce happens while in jail or after. Sixty months into his time, William was served divorce papers. His marriage just could not hold up to the stress. Unfortunately, the experiences of William’s family are all too common.

Studies have found that, compared to children in similar demographic, socioeconomic, and familial characteristics having a parent in prison is associated with children’s behavioral problems and conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, speech or language problems and developmental delays. Though there are those who disagree with the findings, or don’t believe the correlation is causal, such as Glen Elliott, the mental and economic stress cannot be denied.divorceandkids1

The studies also note that minorities and low-income families will experience significantly more parental incarceration with numbers at 50 percent of black males by the age of 14 versus 7 percent of white males. These numbers of incarcerated parents only add to the disadvantage of minorities and low-income children in the US.

The prison system needs to wake up to the fact that the current system is not working, and needs to take steps to make changes that will improve the success rate of families and incarcerated individuals while in jail and after. William makes many suggestions such as probation, house-arrest, community service, and restitution for offenders of nonviolent crimes. These suggestions along with rehabilitation services, employment, and life skills that would help rebuild the family once the parent is out of prison and will reduce the risk of a repeat offense.

Our current system is destroying not only the lives of the incarcerated parents in our country, but also destroying the lives of their children. We need to consider the long term effects of our current system and realize that we are only creating more criminals in children due to the mental and economic stress. There must be a better way.

This post is summarized by Tiffany Clark for COIPI from two sources: 
1- Tran Bui, Hoai. “Parental incarceration may be worse than divorce”. USA Today. 25 August 2014. <>.)
2- Tank Black, William. “I went to prison, and  it nearly destroyed my family”. The Washington Post. 19 June 2015. <>.)
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