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  • 2.7 million American children have an incarcerated parent, and they often live too far apart to visit regularly. Tweet This
  • Young or old, having a parent behind bars means a disruption in the family narrative. Tweet This

The word “home” remains one of the most evocative in the English language, especially in lyric form during the month of December. Countless singers croon of coming home or being home for the holidays, but for many families, including 2.7 million children—that’s one in 28 American kids—an incarcerated partner or parent is not home for the holidays. Each December, I try to be mindful of families with loved ones of all ages behind bars.

The statistics relating just to inmates with minor children are staggering:

  • In 2010, 1.5 million people were in state or federal prison in the U.S, and 750,000 in jails. Nationally, there were more than 120,000 incarcerated mothers and 1.1 million incarcerated fathers who were parents of minor children.
  • One in nine African-American children (11.4%), one in 28 Hispanic children (3.5%), and one in 57 white children (1.8%) in the United States have an incarcerated parent.
  • Close to six in ten incarcerated parents had no personal visits from any of their children in 2010. 84% of parents in federal prisons are held over 100 miles away from their last residence, and 43% over 500 miles away.

Being a child with an incarcerated parent is understandably difficult. When Carlos* was seven, his father went to prison for a non-violent federal offense. With the prison located more than an hour away and his mother working two jobs, visits happened infrequently. When they did go, the family would sit together in a commons area, heat up vending machine sandwiches in a microwave, and “shoot the breeze.” Once they went to a “family day” where Carlos and his brother played basketball and competed in a sack race with other inmates’ children.

Despite the infrequent in-person visits, every Sunday for two years Carlos talked with his father by telephone, and they kept matching calendars. They marked off the days until his release. Carlos said that this small ritual of keeping time together kept him going. He described their separation: “It was rough, not being able to see my dad. Had my days where I cried about it, and it just hurt.” Carlos wanted his dad home, especially during the holidays, when his father’s absence changed their family traditions.

We* interviewed Carlos a year after his father died as part of a project studying caregiving and grieving trends of Generation X. Now 29 years old, Carlos described his father’s incarceration more than twenty years ago as the beginning of the end of his parents’ marriage. Their divorce led to financial difficulties for both parents, causing his mother, who had custody of Carlos and his brother, to live in a less than desirable neighborhood. In time, his brother fell into a less than desirable crowd and was shot and killed in their front yard. Carlos narratively traced the death of his brother to his father’s incarceration.

 ‘It was rough, not being able to see my dad. Had my days where I cried about it, and it just hurt.’

We were not expecting incarceration to enter these narratives of care and loss, but 12 of the 62 people we interviewed, either the interviewee, a sibling, or a parent had been or was incarcerated at the time we talked. Most imprisonments were related to non-violent or drug-related offenses. Our interviewees’ memories of an imprisoned family member spanned from their childhood in the 80s and 90s to the present, with one parent dying in prison. All realized that their concept of home changed when a loved one went to prison.

Twenty years ago, Carlos and his parents had few if any resources to help guide their experience. Thankfully, times are changing. In response to the growing prevalence of incarcerated parents, in 2013 Sesame Street created a character with an incarcerated father. The “Little Children, Big Challenges: Incarceration” series offers videos, tips, and activities for caregivers of children with an incarcerated parent as well as for parents behind bars. Their video on preparing for a visit is especially helpful in reminding adults of how intimidating the rules, sounds, and sights of a prison can be to a child. Overall, their tips on how to stay connected as a family are straightforward and encouraging, and echo the insight of the American Bar Association that the best way to support the parent-child relationship is to create opportunities for ongoing contact.

Several other creative efforts seek to keep families with incarcerated parents connected. For example, I volunteer at our local prison as part of the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois “Storybook Project.”  Churches from across the state and country donate children’s books, and we volunteers bring them into the prison system where inmates get to choose a book for their child or grandchild and then sit with one of us as we record their reading. We then mail the book and recording to their child. Other outreach efforts span the country. Annie E. Casey provides a wonderful resource list of books and reports, as does the Sentencing Project.

While helping minor children stay connected to their incarcerated parents remains a critical focus, so too is supporting the families of the graying prison population. The hospice with which I served in Baton Rouge helped train inmate volunteers to care for their fellow inmates who had entered hospice care behind bars, and helped coordinate the compassionate release of dying prisoners to home or to our hospice inpatient unit, when possible. Both approaches brought dignity and hope to seriously ill and dying inmates. However, many questions remain concerning how best to serve our rapidly aging prison population, including how to better support family members on the outside in honoring an aging or ill loved one who is incarcerated.

In our study, one father, Leonard, died behind bars. We interviewed his son, Ty, and stepdaughter, Courtney. During Leonard’s last week of life, he moved to a local hospital. Even though he was non-responsive, the guards handcuffed him to the bed rails. Courtney stayed by his side, quietly reminding him that he was surrounded by people who loved him and saw him for the man and father he was and not the offender or inmate the handcuffs defined. Courtney and Ty were acutely aware that they were at the mercy of the prison system. While grateful to be allowed to remain at his side as he died, they often felt powerless and alone. They knew of no resources that could support them.

Young or old, having a parent behind bars means a disruption in the family narrative and a change in the concept of home. As the holiday season comes to a close, may we be mindful of those children of all ages whose incarcerated parents were not home for the holidays.

*All names have been changed to protect the identities of our interview cohort. Naomi Cahn, Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School, and I conducted research on twenty-first-century family caregiving, grief, and inheritance that will be presented in the book Homeward Bound, slated for publication by Oxford University Press in 2016.