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Arrested Development

More than 2.2 million Americans are behind bars today. In an exclusive interview, Nell Bernstein talks about the illogic of incarceration and how kids pay for their parents' crimes.
 
 
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Dear Judge, I need my mom. Would you help my mom? I have no dad and my grandmom have cancer I dont have innyone to take care of me and my sisters and my niece and nephew and my birthdays coming up in October the 25 and I need my mom to be here on the 25 and for the rest of my life. I will cut your grass and wash your car everyday just dont send my mom off. Please Please Please don't!!!" -- Phillip (from Nell Bernstein's All Alone in the World .

When former Enron executive Andrew Fastow and his wife Lea were convicted of wire and securites fraud, the judge staggered their sentences so not to leave their children without a parent.

Millions of other American kids aren't so lucky.

A reprehensible number of children of prisoners in the United States have been left parentless in recent years thanks in large part to overreaching mandatory sentencing laws. Often poor, psychologically scarred and prone to generational cycles of criminality, their numbers grow with the industrial prison complex, itself an offspring of fear, profit and politically motivated "wars" on drugs and crime.

More than 2.2 million citizens are behind bars, a fivefold spike over three decades. The Sentencing Project, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group, reports that the lifer population in U.S. prisons has more than tripled in the past two decades. One in every 11 federal and state prisoners now carries a life sentence. And one in four is serving a sentence of 20 years or more.

And the children bear the costs. Many must rely on grandmothers, elderly women who are often in poor health and financially struggling. Other kids fall into bureaucratic mazes or shuttle between foster homes. Too many take to the street, uncorrected problems becoming fountains for new ones.

  • 2.4 million American children have a mom or dad in jail.
  • Three in every hundred American children have a parent behind bars.
  • The number of incarcerated women (many of them mothers) increased more than sevenfold between 1980 and the end of 2003, from 13,400 to over 100,000, according to the General Accounting Office.

In an age of fear factor politicking, can the U.S. combat crime while keeping families together? Can society protect family bonds by softening mandatory sentencing laws passed during America's crack hysteria of the 1980s? In short, can the American criminal justice system be taught to think?

Journalist Nell Bernstein says yes. In her new book, All Alone in the World, Bernstein deftly uses studies, interviews, policy recommendations and tragic personal stories to map the damage our criminal justice system has done to the people it may too likely house in the future.

You note that some have called over-incarceration the civil rights issue of the 21st century. You've suggested it may also be the children's issue of our time. If a new civil rights movement is to emerge, where does it best begin and who is most likely to start it?

I think the interesting thing is that civil rights movements only work when led by those affected. There is definitely a movement brewing on the part of former prisoners looking at lots of things including the legal denial of civil rights. But when it comes to children it's hard. Obviously young children can't lead or participate. There are teenagers, young adults, who have experienced this who are powerful leaders and voices, but there is still a lot of stigma. Almost more than anything else I've written about, there is a hesitancy to talk about it.

You report how overly punitive drug laws are responsible for leaving many children parentless. What in your opinion has lead to the contemporary American hysteria that prefers retribution to rehabilitation?

I think there are lots of things that contribute to it. But I also don't think most people think that way anymore. What's really interesting is that recent polls have showed people turning toward rehabilitation. That wasn't true 10 years ago when there was a real lock-em'-up attitude. The politics hasn't caught up though.

One problem is that people don't know who's in prison. People assume if you go to prison you are dangerous and you should be in prison. They don't realize that a large percent of prisoners are drug offenders or people who committed nonviolent crimes. Politicians explained to me that you can oppose a tough-on-crime law when it is being voted on, but once it is enacted it is immovable. Polls are showing a shift in public opinion and my hope is that it will filter into politics.

You mention psychologist Robert Coles' theory of the "moral jeopardy" faced by children. Can you expand on that?

I tried to talk to young people to see how they developed morally when they felt their family had been treated unjustly by law enforcement or the criminal justice system. Besides the sentences, these are kids who sometimes have been treated roughly themselves. Some say kids living in extreme hardship run the risk of losing their moral compass. I wanted to look at this in kids who had reason not to trust social contract. And I found that they were morally complex, struggling to do the right thing and understand what was right even in the face of complex circumstances.

You call for arrest protocols that support and protect arrestees' children, the idea being to train police to comfort children during the psychologically dangerous moments of a parent's arrest. How would you describe the current state of police preparedness in this regard?

I am not sure police could comfort them. It could be difficult to draw comfort from the people who are taking your parent away. But they can help them at the most basic level. People have told me several stories of kids literally left alone in an apartment after the parent was arrested. There has been national and statewide research looking to see if police have protocols or policies about what to do and the great majority don't.

It comes down to common sense. Many police do exercise common sense and wouldn't leave kids alone. But it's hit and miss. Some departments think twice about breaking doors. They think twice. If you handcuff someone, can you do it outside? Do you have to draw weapons? Lots of kids face weapons during arrests and experience trauma. Police always put safety first but police who have really thought about this understand that not making yourself into an enemy is a means of ensuring safety.

You also call for sentences that encourage accountability to children. Can you expand on that? Are there examples of courts and judges taking these steps?

This is kind of the great irony of indiscriminate use of incarceration. You hear accountability given as the reason. But being locked up and forced to sit idle doesn't allow you to do anything for your victim or kids.

Because very many of their parents have drug problems, the kids I interviewed helped keep me real. Five years ago I would have said using drugs is victimless crime. But the kids let me know the degree to which they were harmed by it. I would have said five years ago it was nobody's business. I don't feel that anymore.

Take Drug Treatment Alternative-to-Prison (DTAP) program in New York, for example. It's a diversion program, a deferred sentencing program, for "predicate felons," people with multiple serious priors and a drug problem who would otherwise be serving long sentences. They sentence them but defer it and send them to drug rehabilitation and job training. Part of that involves family visits and counseling and requires people to get better, to learn a trade and come to terms with the damage done in families.

Prisoners and their families are currently forced to subsidize the state and private industry through exorbitant collect call rates. You suggest inmates be given the ability to buy market-rate phone cards and that collect calls should be billed at standard rates. Are you optimistic that phone companies will ever make those changes? Are there any laws or activist movements that have gained ground on this issue?

By phone tax I am referring to the fact that phone companies get exclusive deals and charge twenty times the regular rates. Some of that money goes to prisoner welfare funds or, in some cases, general funds. You would have to take it on at the state level because I don't think phone companies could unilaterally lower rates since they bid for the contract. But for example in the federal system, or in Oregon, which is a family conscious state, someone in prison can take earnings, buy a phone card and call their family. The women I talked to said that means so much.

Like a lot of the problems with the system, it would not take rocket science to fix them. It would be easy if people were committed to it. And it would mean a world of difference for these children and these families.

Kelly Hearn is a former UPI staff writer who divides his time between the U.S. and South America. A correspondent to The Christian Science Monitor, his work has appeared in The Nation, The American Prospect and other publications. He is a regular contributor to AlterNet.