News & Politics

Mass Incarceration and the Achievement Gap

The impact of imprisoned parents on children shows how criminal justice policy is education policy.

Portrait of a young man in jail
Photo Credit: CURAphotography / Shutterstock

The United States’ criminal justice system incarcerates at a rate that is unmatched in the modern world. There are today approximately 700 prisoners per 100,000 residents. The former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan follows, with 600 prisoners per 100,000 residents. South Africa, with its history of racial hierarchy, imprisons 300. Canada’s rate is about 100. The American incarceration rate wasn’t always this high. In the early 1970s, the rate was less than 170. Since then, it has grotesquely ballooned.

Black parents, especially black fathers, are incarcerated at an exceptionally high rate. For every 100,000 black men, more than 2,700 are imprisoned. Excessive sentencing for minor crimes and our racially discriminatory “war on drugs” policies that began in the 1970s are largely to blame for the incarceration explosion. The reimprisonment of released offenders for technical probation violations or for the inability to pay escalating fines and court fees has exacerbated the trend. Absurdly, released prisoners are in many cases excluded—either formally or informally—from employment in the legal economy, but can be re-imprisoned for violating the terms of release by failing to hold a job.

All of this has consequences for children, who of course have committed no crime. Our unjustified incarceration rates should be of urgent concern to anyone interested in narrowing the educational achievement gap—the persistently lower academic and behavioral performance of black pupils than white pupils, even when their demographic characteristics seem to be similar. The mass incarceration of African American par-ents damages their children, whose academic achievement, behavior,
and health become worse when
their parents are incarcerated.

In studies that I and my co-author, Richard Rothstein, reviewed for our report “Mass Incarceration and Children’s Outcomes,” differences between children of non-incarcerated parents and those of incarcerated parents show up in comparisons of otherwise similar children. Researchers accounted for many characteristics, comparing children of the same race, gender, and parental education. The studies we reviewed took into account a large number of other factors such as children’s closeness to their father, neighborhood poverty, and other stressful life events such as whether the child of the incarcerated parent was ever expelled from school or had attempted suicide. After accounting for all these characteristics and many more, there remained a difference in outcomes for children of incarcerated parents. In fact, the statistical sophistication of the studies reasonably eliminates the possibility that children’s decline across a range of areas is attributable to socioeconomic or demographic characteristics of the children rather than to their parents’ present or previous incarcerations.

IT IS MORE COMMON for children of incarcerated parents to drop out of school than it is for children of non-incarcerated parents. This is especially true for young teenage boys with a mother behind bars. And such boys are even more likely to drop out of school if they themselves have been incarcerated.

Children with incarcerated parents are much more likely to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), more likely to suffer from developmental delays, and are more likely to have behavioral problems.

Children of incarcerated fathers suffer from worse physical health: They are more likely to have migraines, asthma, and high cholesterol. Their mental health is also worse. Children of incarcerated fathers are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The chart below summarizes the increased likelihood that children of parents who have ever been incarcerated will have various negative outcomes, compared with the likelihood that children of never-incarcerated parents will have them.

Children of incarcerated parents lose faith in public institutions. In all but two states, convicted felons are prohibited from voting while in prison; in some states, ex-felons are denied the vote even after they have served their sentences. In many states, only gubernatorial or court action can reverse this disenfranchisement. When children witness their parents’ disenfranchisement, their engagement in the democratic process and social institutions becomes eroded. Children of parents who have been incarcerated are, as adults, less likely to vote, less likely to trust the government, and less likely to engage in community service.

There are several possible explanations of why parental incarceration might have these surprisingly strong consequences.

Children of incarcerated parents are at greater risk of becoming poor and experiencing economic instability. Before being incarcerated, more than half of all inmates were the primary breadwinners for their families. But prisoners make little or no money, so incarceration usually means a sharp decline in (or the complete loss of) family income. This financial distress continues after prisoners are released because finding a job can be difficult. A criminal record can formally and informally bar former prisoners from employment. African American men with no high school education who have been incarcerated at some point in their lives earn substantially less than African American men with similarly low education levels but without a criminal record.

After a parent is incarcerated, the remaining parent is likely to become more stressed than before his or her partner was incarcerated. The parent who remains at home is less able to pay attention to his or her child. Children of incarcerated parents are likely to be unsupervised more frequently than children of non-incarcerated parents. When a father is incarcerated, the remaining parent, the mother, may need to work longer hours, making her less available to her child.

When the parents’ relationship turns unstable because of the incarceration, children are more likely to act out in class. Their misbehavior can lead them to get suspended or even expelled, and this frequently deteriorates into delinquency.

When an incarcerated parent is released and returns home, the family must reorganize once again. There is sometimes more conflict than cohesion among family members. Children experiencing such dynamics can act out, or become depressed.

Children of incarcerated mothers are especially likely to end up in foster care. The increase in rates of maternal incarceration has added about 100,000 children to the foster-care system, close to one-third of the increase in the number of fostered children between 1985 and 2000. In general, children in foster care do worse in school than socioeconomically and demographically similar children who live with a parent. They are absent from school more and have more behavioral problems than children not in foster care.

Prisons are typically unfriendly environments for children visiting a parent. There is usually no place to play. They may have to wait a long time before being permitted to see a parent. Sometimes, physical contact between child and parent is limited or even prohibited. Such an austere, restrictive environment can be traumatic for a child.

Stress, especially the kind of excessive and prolonged stress that occurs when a parent is incarcerated, leads to deterioration in mental health. Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder are common manifestations of such toxic stress. Children also suffer physical health consequences: For example, many children of incarcerated parents develop asthma. Indeed, children who grow up under stressful conditions have more sympathetic nervous activity—this is the system that stimulates our fight-or-flight response and what we do in response to a threat—including elevated blood pressure. They have more activity in their hypothalamic pituitary axis, which regulates cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. This disrupts their prefrontal cortex activity, sympathetic nervous activity, and metabolic system, causing diminished cognition, less regulated behavior, as well as worse health.

In institutions that are meant to be socially supportive, such as schools, families and children often keep a parent’s incarceration hidden for fear of social stigmatization. This means fewer opportunities for children to benefit from resources that are important for social integration. Relationships fracture, including the structures of family and home. Children of incarcerated parents must move more, as the remaining parent typically can no longer afford the family’s previous home and must either find a new, less costly, and usually less-adequate place for the family to live; move in with relatives; or place children in foster care. This can lead children to misbehave, become suspended, or even be expelled from school.

These relationships between incarceration and family harm can become cyclical and cumulative: A parent is incarcerated. Family income drops. Housing stability is eroded. Stress increases. Children do worse in school and their health deteriorates. They drop out or are expelled. They become delinquent or homeless or end up in foster care. Eventually, they may be incarcerated and their own children suffer the same consequences they have faced.

In the last days of his term, President Obama responded to this discriminatory sentencing with a stepped-up rate of commutations. But such presidential action is unlikely to continue during the Trump presidency. It is also insufficient: Most prisoners are in state facilities, not federal ones. In 2014, more than 700,000 prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of a year or longer for nonviolent crimes. More than 600,000 of them were in state, not federal, prisons.

“Stop and frisk” practices by local police, advocated by President Trump, are not federal policies, and Trump has little influence over them—other than signaling that he supports tougher policing. But reform of local and state government policies and practices that result in excessive and discriminatory incarceration is no less urgent now than it was before a Trump administration.

State policymakers have great reach to change criminal justice policies that will improve how children do in school. Educators can inform parents, students, and communities about the harmful effects of parental incarceration on children. By organizing themselves and collaborating with other advocacy organizations, educators are in a position to press their local and state government for criminal justice policy reforms. Educators should embrace reform as a priority for advocacy.

When prisoners are released, social support and family-based interventions can help prevent family strain and breakdown, and foster reunification of families. In Hawaii, for instance, a law requires the Department of Public Safety to attenuate the impact of incarceration on children by providing parenting classes for inmates, keeping inmates incarcerated within close geographical proximity to their families, hosting family days with extended visiting hours, and allowing inmates to video-conference with their children. Girl Scouts Beyond Bars provides support to girls with incarcerated mothers, including promoting connections between mother and daughter, planning for a mother’s reentry, and connecting daughters of incarcerated mothers to community services.

A program for incarcerated fathers, the National Fatherhood Initiative’s InsideOut Dad, has shown positive results in helping incarcerated fathers to remain connected to their families and to improve their parenting skills. The Children of Incarcerated Parents Bill of Rights was developed with the purpose of incorporating a focus on children in criminal justice reform. In fact, strong familial bonds upon reentry can deter further crime. And yet, there are too few such supports. Reformers have paid too little attention to designing prisoner reentry programs that give special attention to the needs of children. More reentry programs that promote positive familial relationships and children’s well-being are necessary.

Children’s cognitive and behavioral problems caused by mass incarceration are difficult for teachers to overcome. Decreasing the number of black children affected by mass incarceration is likely to have a greater positive effect on student achievement than many school-based reforms currently advocated by education policymakers. Criminal justice policy is education policy.

 

Leila Morsy is a senior lecturer in education at the University of New South Wales School of Education, and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute.

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