#BlackDadsMatter: Mass Incarceration is Robbing Children of Their Fathers. Here's How to Fix It.

#BlackDadsMatter: Mass Incarceration Is Robbing Children of Their Fathers. Here’s How to Fix That

Your Take: Alternatives to imprisonment put the needs of children first and can help end the horrible legacy that mass incarceration produces.

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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 Loera, 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.

Patricia Allard & Glenn Martin

Comments

The judge in my son and daughter in laws case put a no contact order on for 2 years. They are married and have 3 children. He was on drugs when he was charged with aggravated assault. He is in prison. We have tried to write letters to the judge and states attorney to amend or recind the order so the kids and mom can visit. They have no intention of divorcing as he is getting help and drug free. The judge made the comment in court he put it on for 2 years because he wasn't sure he deserved to be around his kids and if the wife still wanted him after 2 years then basically whatever. The SA told the social worker the family worked with she will never drop the order. The clerk of courts told us all we had to do was right letter to request the NCO be amended. It was denied. No phone calls, letters, cant even send him a photo of them. This became a personal issue with the judge and SA as my son was detoxing from drugs, depressed, suicidal, obnoxious, in court. He wrote a letter to the local newspaper.( small town in Minot ND, He is black and wife is white.)Now the kids are suffering the most. They are angry, sad, hurting and seem to be taking things out on their mom. All they want to do is even talk to him or even video visits...but nope. It is a shame. This judge lets sex offenders walk, lets you choke your dog to death with your hands, let you duct taped his dogs mouth and dumped him off to starve in the country and much more...I know this sounds unimportant but I happen to like dogs and my son was sexually abused as a child. Well thank you for listening. I really don't know what else to do. We are going to try to go infront of the judge. I don't know that it will matter, he already noted on ND courts.com he is not going to basically accept any more letters/ requests from us. I have been trying to find services for kids with incarcerated parents...ND does not have any. Thank you.

Thank you for sharing the struggles you and your family are encountering with this judge in North Dakota. Please contact me directly, so I may put you in touch with folks who can help you in ND. Pat [at] justicestrategies [dot] net You and your family deserve all the support you can get.

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