Nearly 6 percent of children in Maryland have a parent in prison or jail, which makes it more likely that they will struggle academically, live in poverty, and have other social or psychological problems that could plague them for life.
These are the findings of a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation about the damaging ripple effects of incarceration on families. The report, “A Shared Sentence,” provides strong evidence of the unintended consequences of imprisoning convicts, and the costs borne by children, families and communities.
“In the most basic sense we seem to forget that there are people that are left behind,” said Scot Spencer, associate director for advocacy and influence at the Casey Foundation.
For the 82,000 children in Maryland with a parent locked up, that means an unstable family environment in which they aren’t bonding, sometimes during the most important time of their lives.
Incarceration can lead to loss of income for the affected families and throw some further into the poverty that many are already in, researchers found. The experience also causes stress equivalent to that sparked by domestic abuse and divorce, making it hard for both children and parents who are left at home to cope.
New problems can arise once the incarcerated parent leaves prison and returns home, the researchers found. Transitioning back into society and a family is often complicated. Finding jobs can be difficult for those with criminal records.
“For children and families, incarceration is not a one-time event, but a daily reality that lasts well beyond a jail sentence or prison term,” the report’s authors wrote.
Conservative estimates are that 5.1 million youths nationwide have had a parent in jail at some point in life. The percentage of children with incarcerated parents varies by state, from 3 percent in New Jersey to 13 percent in Kentucky, according to the Casey report.
There are about 21,500 inmates in the Maryland state prison system, according to the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. People from Baltimore make up one-third of the state’s prison population.
Three-quarters of incarcerated Baltimoreans come from 25 communities, where 47 percent of the residents are unemployed, according to the Governor’s Office for Children.
The office has made it a priority to find ways to better address the impact of incarceration on children and families. The office has found that communities with high rates of incarceration also have high rates of unemployment, low incomes and people receiving public assistance.
These communities also have large high school dropout rates and lower life expectancy rates.
The Family League of Baltimore, with support from the Governor’s Office of Children, is planning a conference this summer on helping families dealing with incarceration.
The group describes the high cost of incarceration to children as an adverse childhood experience.
Organizers plan to bring together residents, community leaders and others to discuss solutions. Johns Hopkins University’s Urban Health Institute is scheduled to present research on parental incarceration and its effects on children, families, and communities.
“We will really delve into this issue to look at the implications and challenges of incarceration on children and families and to help have a public conversation about how to work toward solutions,” said Amy Bernstein, director of external relations at the Family League.
The Casey Foundation offers several recommendations, including setting up programs and support systems to ensure that families get the financial and emotional support they need.
Casey says particular attention should be paid to making sure children keep a strong bond with the incarcerated parent. The foundation also recommends that more be done to help ex-offenders find employment once they leave prison, and supports ban-the-box policies, which prohibit employers from asking about a job candidate’s criminal history at the start of the application process.
Communities should be strengthened by “minimizing the economic and social effects of incarceration,” the report’s authors write. This can be done by increasing access to affordable housing, jobs, good schools and other resources.
Some work is already being done on incarceration, but social justice advocates say much more can be done.
Bon Secours Community Works in West Baltimore runs a program that helps ex-offenders transition back into society.
Anees Abdul Rahim, the program’s reentry coordinator, says families often struggle with reuniting after an incarceration. The wife or female partner may have matured faster in the years that her husband or boyfriend was imprisoned. The children might not respect the authority of the parent who has returned home.
“Incarceration can really break down the family in a psychological and emotional way that really makes it almost impossible to rebuild,” Rahim said. “You need programs to help people make it through.”