CHICAGO ( – Renee Y. Lee, recovery home director for The Women’s Treatment Center, says people should be less judgmental and more circumspect in viewing the complex challenges associated with dealing with America’s ever-growing prison population.

“What appears is not always what it is,” said Ms. Lee. “The causation for why a person commits a crime–although we won’t exonerate them and let them off the hook completely–some of the time, it is related to an addiction and that is a factor. We as a society are responsible for one another.”

“Children on the Outside: Voicing the Pain and Human Costs of Parental Incarceration,” a new report from Justice Strategies, a nonprofit research organization pursuing more humane and cost-effective approaches to criminal justice and immigration law enforcement, provides first-hand accounts of the harm experienced by some of the 1.7 million minor children with a parent in prison, a population that has grown with the explosion of the U.S. prison population.


“When they do time we also do time. Just because we’re not in there doesn’t mean we don’t do time. Because you’re not with us, we also do time,” explained Araya, a teen girl with an incarcerated father.
The report details the challenges faced by children of incarcerated parents, whose experience of grief and loss is compounded by economic insecurity, family instability, a compromised sense of self-worth, attachment and trust problems, and social stigmatization.

The report also outlines the ways in which parental incarceration can influence negative outcomes for youth, including mental health problems, possible school failure, unemployment, and delinquent behavior.

The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that by 2007, fifty-three percent of the 1.5 million prisoners in the U.S. were parents of children who were minors. This means over 1.7 million children have an incarcerated parent, an increase of 80 percent since 1991.

Many of those children (nearly 25 percent) are four years of age or younger and 33 percent of them reach adulthood while their parents are in prison.

Racial disparity regarding the prison industrial complex is nothing new, and this racial dynamic is reflected throughout statistical data. Black children are seven and a half times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison. The extent to which this affects the entire community upon reentry is a topic that is often ignored.

While Ms. Lee acknowledges that there are consequences for violations of law and criminal activity, she believes the greater good of society is served when mothers are able to remain in their children’s lives, despite, what they may have done.

Ms. Lee and those she works with are dillingently striving to end the cycle of incarceration.

Parents and Children Together is a program designed to allow incarcerated mothers to interact with their children and caregivers, spending a type of “quality time” via regular videoconferencing.

Another outreach program directed by Ms. Lee’s organization allows non-violent female offenders to serve up to the final two years of their sentence at a recovery home. If women have children under age five, they are allowed to have the child with them. If the child is over five, weekends visits are arranged, in order to maintain the parent-child connection.

According to Ms. Lee, the program has been very successful. For more than fifty women who have passed through the program over the past three fiscal years, there is a zero percent recidivism rate, meaning, those women have not returned to prison, she said.

According to experts, a child with an incarcerated parent is three times more likely to engage in antisocial behavior such as violence or drug abuse. Chances that they will have trouble in school are increased and they are twice as likely to develop mental health problems.

“We can look at the intergenerational issues related to people who are incarcerated as being a factor along with the social factors in their environment,” said Ms. Lee. “Certainly, being incarcerated is an issue of choice in terms of whatever they did to break the law, but there are some programs that are proactive to bring some restoration and wholeness back to the family structure,” she added.

Related news:

Young children bear consequences when parents are imprisoned (FCN, 05-25-2010)