Through an hour-long discussion at Georgetown University, PBS NewsHour co-anchor Geoff Bennett and three expert panelists discussed the systemic and personal burdens that incarceration places on families.
The conversation was part of the NewsHour’s multi-platform series “Searching for Justice” and was hosted by the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative (PJI). The event was live streamed online by PBS from Georgetown’s historic Gaston Hall on Oct. 10.
Generational Impacts of Incarceration
Walker had two young daughters when he was incarcerated at just 17 years old, and he spent nearly 25 years away from his family. Walker’s own father has been in and out of prison his entire life, he said, and the two at one point were reunited while both serving time in the same federal penitentiary.
Walker’s experience is an example of the cyclical nature of the mass incarceration system and its impacts, and he has been on both sides of family separation – as a son whose father was taken away and a father taken away from his own children.
“The child is also serving the sentence with their parent, and the child didn’t ask for it,” he said. “The government knew that my mom and dad were system impacted, and the only thing they could offer me was a jail cell too.”
The panelists emphasized that the criminal legal system often ignores the far-reaching emotional, psychological, and financial impacts on an incarcerated person’s family, which can reverberate through generations.
“You’re never just punishing one person, you’re punishing everyone connected to that person,” Haney said.
Losing parental rights – through the foster care system and quick-moving adoptions – is far too common for incarcerated people, the panelists said. Quarles called for the repeal of the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which allows a child to be placed with an adoptive family by the state if they have been in foster care for 15 out of the past 22 months, and in some cases even less.
“Separating families usually doesn’t equate to being better for the children,” Quarles said.
Haney also noted the gender disparities that affect incarcerated women with children. When a father is incarcerated, she said, his child’s mother is likely to become the primary caretaker. But the reverse is not true, leaving children with incarcerated mothers more vulnerable to entering the foster care system.
Many of the policies and systems that strip incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people of their parental rights are founded on a belief that people can be defined by their criminal convictions and those who have committed crimes are unable to be good parents.
“We seem to think that people are static, they’re not going to change,” Quarles said. “We’re going to punish them for life, and everyone that they’re connected to is going to suffer.”
The panel called for a more child-centered approach that recognizes the value of children maintaining a connection to their parents and gives a child, as they age, more say over contact or visits with a parent.
But the challenges and financial burden of maintaining these relationships – when in many places communicating with someone in prison comes at a steep cost – often get in the way of relationships.
“When he was gone, I missed my dad,” Walker said. “Whatever he was charged with didn’t have anything to do with my love for my dad.”
And when he was incarcerated, Walker said, he depended on his relationship with his daughter to keep him going, “especially in those dark days” of thinking he may never get out of prison.
Collateral Consequences and Reentry
Child custody, family reunification, and childcare are all a part of the complex puzzle of reentry, which people returning home from prison must navigate alongside other issues like housing, employment, and healthcare. The vast majority of incarcerated people will return home at some point, and they often have very little support as they transition back to the community. Reentry affects everyone, even those without a direct connection to the criminal legal system, the panelists said.
“Prison does not work. And now we hear a lot of elected officials swinging towards going back to this ‘law and order’ philosophy as if somehow something has changed and it’s going to be better this time around,” Quarles said. “And so we challenge those narratives and remember that there are people who aren’t that individual who are impacted. How are we going to treat ourselves and our society better?”