This Sunday my wife and three children, along with millions of other American families, will celebrate Father’s Day. Nothing makes me happier than being surrounded by my family on special days like this. But for two years, there was no gathering for Father’s Day in our house.
I was an absent father, not by choice, but because I was a federal prisoner, inmate 06833-097.
For two years, I was separated from my wife and children on Father’s Day. For our family, the holiday was not a day to be celebrated, but rather a reminder of my missing place in their lives and in our home. That’s how it is for the families of the 2.5 million children in the United States who have parents behind bars—a time to reflect on what their lives would be like if they were part of a unified family.
Prison is certainly the right place for violent and career criminals. But many prisoners are not dangerous, and separating them from their families is not necessary to hold them accountable for their crimes.
Prisons are for people we are afraid of but we are filling them with many people we are just mad at.
Holding low-risk offenders in jail and prison comes at a high cost, not just in terms of state budgets, but also the toll it takes on children and families, the innocent casualties left behind.
A 2010 Pew Charitable Trusts report found that one in 28 children in the United States has a parent who is incarcerated. Imprisonment of a parent increases the likelihood a child will live in poverty, as ex-offenders struggle to find jobs upon release. Children of the incarcerated also have a higher likelihood of landing in foster care, having trouble in school, and struggling to form attachments with peers. Sadly without strong and positive authority figures in their lives, many of these kids will become delinquents and end up behind bars themselves.
The American Conservative Union Foundation (ACUF) works to apply conservative principles to the problems confronting our country. One of the most serious areas of concern is the disintegration of American families, which contributes to the erosion of our culture. The criminal justice system, particularly the separation of parents from their children, is an example of where unintended consequences of government policies are jeopardizing families. Given the heavy toll incarcerating a parent takes on most kids, ACUF supports placing lower-level offenders under mandatory supervision in the community, allowing them to remain connected to family, gainfully employed and available to their children.
As for those we do incarcerate, ACUF believes that family preservation should be a top priority for corrections officials. Sadly, many prison policies make it difficult for families to remain in touch. These policies need to be changed:
• Most inmates are imprisoned hundreds of miles from their families, without public transportation available for their families to visit.
• Many prisons prohibit relatives other than the custodial parent from bringing their children to visit their parent. Thus, the caregiver that often works two jobs to support the family is the only one who can bring the children to visit. No grandparents, aunts or brothers are allowed to bring them.
• Other prisons prohibit children from visiting unless the incarcerated parent is listed on their birth certificate. This cuts off contact for parents not listed, and places them in a Catch-22 because many states consider failure to visit or communicate with a child in foster care as grounds to terminate all parental rights.
• Most jails and prisons limit prisoners to collect calls, charging exorbitant rates to their families, who are among the poorest residents of the US. Some states charge as much as $3.95 to place the call plus $0.89 per minute. Families are prohibited from using discount cards that allow the rest of us to make calls for less than 10 cents a minute.
These policies undercut family ties, and work against successful rehabilitation of offenders. Of all the factors that help inmates after their release, an intact family is one of the most important. Research shows that when returning inmates have a supportive family, they are more likely to find a job, less likely to use drugs, and less likely to be involved in criminal activities. The support and accountability that a stable family provides have a clear and positive impact.
Studies also show that children of inmates who are able to visit with their parents have increased cognitive skills, improved academic self-esteem, and greater self-control. It has an impact on the incarcerated parent, too, with significantly reduced recidivism of the parent after release.
ACUF is a partner in Right on Crime - a movement of conservatives working to reform the criminal justice system. We hope you will join us in supporting these reforms. The result will be stronger families and safer communities. And more children united with their fathers to celebrate Father’s Day.