Incarceration Devastates U.S. Families, Research Shows. We All Must Mobilize For Change.
Photo by Shotti NYC

In a groundbreaking study, bipartisan criminal justice reform organization FWD.us and Cornell University partnered to collect much-needed information about the devastating impact of incarceration on U.S. families.

Although it has been an under-researched topic, focusing on how the injustices of our criminal justice system reverberate to families — especially families of color — is vital.

By understanding the prevalence and severity of this problem, people who have had family members incarcerated will know they are far from alone, and they can begin to transform their pain into power by advocating for necessary reforms.

The study showed that 1 in 2 U.S. adults (approximately 113 million people) have had an immediate family member incarcerated for one or more nights in jail or prison. And using a broader definition of family — including grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, etc—  their survey showed even more people have experienced family incarceration.

With their loved ones locked away in cages, making visits and phone calls prohibitively expensive, these people experience negative impacts in almost every area of their life. 

Unsurprisingly, this study showed that Black people bear the bulk of the burden, being 50% more likely than white people to have a family member incarcerated.

Black women – mothers, grandmothers, daughters, wives — often must choose between posting bail for their loved ones and missing important bills or allowing a loved one to languish in jail.

Sometimes, when their romantic partner or co-parent is behind bars, Black women are forced to provide for their families alone. In the video above, ESSENCE partnered with FWD.US to detail some of these heart-wrenching stories, like Mary Crosson, who almost lost her home paying bail for her granddaughter’s arrest.

Mary Crosson. Photography by Shotti NYC.

The study also highlights several disturbing trends in this vein: When asked, 86% of women reported significant and extreme impacts on their mental health, and 63% said their physical health had deteriorated.

Children with parents in jail or prison face similar hardships, including mental health and health issues, entry into the foster care system, and educational setbacks. Parents who are unable to pay court-mandated child support as a result of not earning income in prison may flee after release, to avoid going back to jail. This destroys the sacred bond between child and parent, causing lasting damage. 

Additionally, a 2014 study published in Sociology of Education found that children with incarcerated parents were more likely to repeat a grade because teachers misjudged their ability to excel academically.

Our current prison system is grossly inefficient, and cruel. The U.S. incarcerates more people than any other country in the world, and for longer periods of time. 

Many of those prisoners leave these cages more traumatized than before, which causes recidivism and further community trauma. And our prison system forces families to make impossible choices… facing impossible odds, just to keep their family safe and intact.

Mary Crosson. Photography by Shotti NYC.

Understanding this pain on an intimate level is what motivates so many people to confront the system and change it. Former Georgia Gubernatorial Candidate Stacey Abrams has advocated for criminal justice reform since she was in the state Senate, spurred on by the incarceration of her brother. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) has spoken about how her father’s time in and out of prison motivates her to fight for others.

Telling ESSENCE that in her district, the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, 1 in 4 families have an incarcerated loved one, Rep. Pressley points out that this is “a significant cause of generational trauma.” Rep. Pressley also tells ESSENCE that, “As someone who is acutely aware of the trauma caused by having a loved one in and out of prison, I am dedicated to fighting to change a criminal legal system that is fundamentally unjust. For families involved in our criminal injustice system, incarceration is quite literally a shared sentence, and we must break the chains that keep families ensnared by the mass incarceration system.”

Another advocate is Colorado Rep. Leslie Herod. The state’s first openly LGBTQ Black woman legislator, Herod has sponsored and/or passed numerous criminal justice reform bills, including holding police officers accountable for sexual assault, banning cash bail for petty offenses, and providing free tampons and pads to incarcerated women. Herod’s motivation stems from her own sister’s incarceration, which Herod tells ESSENCE was, “… all I knew. I didn’t know that there was something different. I didn’t get to experience or know her as a sister.”

T.J. Shivers. Photography by Shotti NYC.

Seeing her sister go in and out of prison, and seeing how much this cycle hurt her mother, motivated Herod to, “dismantle the prison-industrial complex… [which] perpetuates institutional and multigenerational trauma that is affecting our communities today.”

And she’s succeeding. Colorado’s rapidly changing criminal justice system is, in large part, due to Herod’s tireless work. “It’s very important that as elected officials… those who vote for us and live in our communities push us, to ensure that we are dismantling the prison industrial complex and turning this whole system on its face. And calling it for what it is, a racist system,” Herod says.

With firsthand knowledge, one can speak truth to power. But this power isn’t limited to legislators and politicians. It belongs to the millions of people who understand the injustice of the prison-industrial complex intimately.

TJ Shivers. Photography by Shotti NYC.

There are 113 million Americans who know what it’s like to see their loved one behind bars — even more if we broaden the definition of family. Imagine if these millions of people voted as an entire bloc in 2020, demanding that their candidates — for President, Congress, state legislatures, and judges — were dedicated to passing comprehensive and bold criminal justice reform? Such a powerful movement would help to end the oppression and exploitation in our prison systems.

We can already see the ripple effect of this. Just yesterday, on October 29th, a Justice Votes 2020 Presidential Town Hall convened. At the event — which was held in a museum that used to be a prison — formerly incarcerated people and their families were able to ask candidates like Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and billionaire Tom Steyer about their criminal justice records and policies. While not every candidate was able to attend, their answers were illuminating. Executive Director of VOTE, Norris Henderson, closed the town hall with this important reminder about the power of voters. “If they can’t show up for us in October of 2019,” he said, “we won’t show up for them in November 2020.”

Herod agrees with the spirit of this sentiment, telling ESSENCE that people who’ve experienced family incarceration should “absolutely… be voting in a bloc.” She continues, saying “We should make mass incarceration and criminal justice reform a voting issue. It hasn’t been in the past. Now is the time to do so. And I think that we actually can bring people from both sides of the aisle together to work together to dismantle it.”

Having a loved one in prison or jail can feel like the most isolating experience in the world. But people experiencing family incarceration are not alone. They’re part of a strong community, one that includes people like Stacey Abrams and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, and Rep. Leslie Herod. They’re part of a community that includes Mary Crosson and TJ. Shivers. And together, they can change the world.

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