Are Children of Prisoners Doomed to Make the Same Mistakes?
There are almost 2 million children of prisoners, at an average age of eight years, in our country. Two million small citizens, many of whom have had difficult lives even before their parent’s incarceration, now suffer trauma, anxiety, guilty, shame, fear, sadness, withdrawal, and low self-esteem. How are they fairing?
Not much is known, except that imprisoned parents often mean that children go to foster care and become at high risk for crime, so the problem is perpetuated from one generation to the next. Many perform poorly in school and tend toward (1) drugs, alcohol, and aggression. Contact with their incarcerated parent(s) is difficult and rare. Distance and visitation restrictions tend to discourage, not encourage, parent-child relationships. We do know that very little if anything is being done for them in our schools, communities, or prison systems. These children are not recognized as a group by any state agency or department.
If we continue to neglect the education and rehabilitation and parenting skills of their parents, we can be sure most of these children will follow in their parents’ footsteps and will one day replace their parents in prisons. The system creates a new generation destined for the fate of its parents.
The picture changes radically, however, if we invest in learning for their incarcerated parents. Because many of them will be the first in their families (or even in their communities) to have earned a college degree, they will become role models who encourage their children to pursue, despite all odds, a higher education. One prisoner named Tanya said (2). “Mv daughter is proud of me and it gives her incentive to want to go [to college]… she asked me if she had to go to college if she didn’t want to. My response was no, she didn’t have to if she didn’t want. Then I sent her my grades with a little note that said, ‘Not bad for a 30 year old Mom, huh?’ When I spoke with her after that she said, if her mother could do it so could she.”
Educated ex-prisoners who have experienced the personal transformation that comes with an education can model positive behaviors (3) and aspire to a different kind of future for their families and children. They are almost always determined that their children be educated, too.
Said Commissioner Brian Fischer of the NY State Department of Correctional Services, “Correctional education (4) provides far more than reduced recidivism, far more than huge economic savings for society. It provides a transformation in the individual which no other program can. And those who experience that transformation extend that education to their own children. In that way, correctional education provides safety and security to our communities not just now, but for generations to come!”
The inevitable result of a modest investment to educate prisoners? We would reduce the likelihood that the children of criminals will break the law and reduce the now growing population of prisoners in our nation. Our criminal population would decrease more and more with every generation.
Research clearly indicates that the best predictor of a child’s educational success is the educational attainment of his or her parents. Children of educated individuals do much better in school and have higher educational aspirations than others. Interviews with early adolescent children revealed their pride in their parents’ pursuit of college. For some, their incarcerated parents are role models for perseverance, hard work, and a vision of possibility. For others, the pride in their prisoner-parent’s accomplishments was tinged with understanding that academic success may not have been possible had their parent not gone to prison.
If, indeed, prison becomes a place for intellectual, emotional, and social growth which, for these people, would not have been experienced on the outside, wouldn’t prisoners and all of society as a whole be better off?
1 Richard J. Coley and Paul E. Barton, “ Locked Up and Locked out: An Ecuational Perspective on the U.S. Prison Population,” Educational Testing Service ( 2006)
2 Michelle Fine, M.E. Torre, I.Bowen, K. Boudin, D.Hylton, J. Clark, M. Martinez, R.A. Roberts, P.Smart, and D. Upegui, with the New York State Department of Correctional services, “Changing Minds: The Impact of College in a Maximum-Security Prison: Effects on Women in Prison, the Prison Environment, Reincarceration Rates and Post-Release Outcomes,” City university of New York (2001)
3 John Linton, “ U.S. Department of Education Update,” The Journal of Correctional Education, Vol. 63, no.2 (September 2012)
4 Brazzell, Crayton, Lindahl, Mukamal, and Solomon, “From the Classroom to the Community: Exploring the Role of Education During Incarceration and Re—entry,” The Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, John Jay College of Criminal Justice ( 2009)
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