Incarceration’s Smallest Victims: The Children

Written by

Henrie Treadwell
Henrie Treadwell Dr. Treadwell is Director and Senior Social Scientist for Community Voices of Morehouse School of Medicine and Research Professor in the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine. Her major responsibilities include program oversight and management for Community Voices: Healthcare for the Underserved, a special informing policy initiative that is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Dr. Treadwell is the co-editor of “Health Issues in the Black Community (2009)” and is Section Editor-Social Determinants in the Journal of Men’s Health. Dr. Treadwell was appointed to the Georgia State Board of Corrections by Governor Sonny Perdue and selected to serve on the Advisory Committee for the Georgia Justice Project.

Prison stays have become all too common in the African American community. Today, the length of the sentence has increased, as has the distance from prisoners’ homes, disrupting the lives of incarcerated families.


It is time for society to consider the collateral damage inflicted on these families, particularly minor children who may experience their entire childhood with a parent absent due to incarceration.

In 2008, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that there were 1.7 million children with a parent in federal or state prison, which equates to 1 in 15 African American children, one in 41 Hispanic children, and 1 in 110 white children. Research from the BJS show that 47 percent of the fathers and 62 percent of the mothers lived with at least one of their children prior to their imprisonment.

Losing a parent to incarceration makes these young children victims of a criminal justice system and can lead to significant psychological and emotional damage. In Georgia, for instance, the Department of Family and Children’s Services (DFACS) takes over when extended family is unable to assume caretaker responsibilities. However, the quality and extent of the care and services provided by such agencies are often questioned, and many children of incarcerated parents end up in trouble as well.

These traumatized children often do not receive proper counseling and support until it is too late, and they begin to act out and become themselves involved with the juvenile justice system or leading destructive lifestyles. The fate of these children is precarious: without intervention, as many as 70% of children from incarcerated families may end up in prison themselves. Research indicates that 23% of children with a father who has served time in jail or prison have been expelled or suspended from school, compared with just 4% of children whose fathers have not been incarcerated.

The children of incarcerated parents are often bullied and teased by other children, which further hurts the fragile spirit of the child who has been caught up in a torrent of emotions and difficult situations. Teachers are not instructed to “watch out” for these children and are thus unaware that their troubled state of mind (grief, trauma, fear of stigma, etc.) is causing them to act out just to get attention.

These factors lead to a dangerous cycle of crime and leave us with a number of questions – Who intervenes? Who is required to intervene? How should our systems respond?

First, we need we need better data and statistics. While some data are collected intermittently, it is almost impossible to know how many children are in need of the help of mentors and support systems in any one state on a given day. In particular, we should focus on the school environment and collect data on the number of suspensions and other disciplinary actions, in order to provide appropriate counseling and mentoring for troubled children.

Second, we need a properly trained workforce in our public schools that will proactively (but confidentially) seek out these children, similar to the support systems in place for abused or endangered children, and counsel them away from the prison pathway.

Third, we need to reexamine the federal policy that prohibits individuals with a drug-related felony from living in public housing. This flawed implementation of regulations hampers the ability of previously incarcerated parents to reunite with their children, as they attempt to reform their ways and reintegrate into society.

Finally, we need to find more ways to connect children with their incarcerated parents while they are in prison. The distances and high cost of phone calls from incarcerated parents to their children present many challenges to maintaining a close relationship. Further, we need to create more child friendly environments in the prisons, and facilitate contact and settings that enable parents and children to have meaningful visits (i.e., when they can read, play, have a meal together, etc.) .

Reentry and the reduction of recidivism remain important societal priorities. However, we will only be able to work on crime and imprisonment prevention when we realize that we are incarcerating our children as victims of the criminal justice system and that we must stop, NOW!

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