The growing concerns about the skyrocketing increase of America’s prison and jail populations have obscured an even more worrying reality: the effect on the children and communities left behind.
“We don’t pay enough attention to this consequence (of high US incarceration rates),” says Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and chair of a landmark National Research Council (NRC) study examining America’s incarceration policies.
“Most people in prison (leave behind) a family member, a child—and those children are struggling in many ways, with childhood development, performance in school, (and their) family structure destabilized,” Travis added.
“The psychological consequences may not play out for a generation.”
Travis, speaking on this month’s episode of Criminal Justice Matters, elaborated on some of the issues raised by the widely quoted NRC study, released last spring. The study called for a national reexamination of the nation’s hardline approach towards punishment—which over the past four decades has triggered a fourfold rise in prison and jail populations since the 1970s.
Noting that it was important to keep in mind that the drivers of high incarceration rates during that period were the sentencing policies of federal and local jurisdictions rather than climbing crime rates, Travis said Americans needed to question long-held assumptions that “high rates of incarceration (are) making us safer.”
Editors Note: See The Crime Report‘s summary of the report in its April 30, 2014 story: “Choice: Cut Prison Population, Or Accept New Normal”
According to Travis, poor communities—and particularly communities of color—have born the “brunt” of the increase. The figures compiled by academics who contributed to the study show that African American men born in the 1970s have a 68 percent chance of serving at least a year in prison before turning 35.
As a result, he noted, “prison reality has become an important social reality for our country.”
The dry statistics were brought to life by Larry White, who spent 32 years in New York State’s maximum security prisons until he was released on parole in 2007, and has been a leader in the prison reform movement.
Speaking on the same program, White said he was troubled by the link between race, urban poverty and prison when he began seeing people he knew from the same neighborhood during his odyssey through the penal system.
“In New York State, we’re a minority, but we’re a majority in the prison system,” said White, who earned his high school degree while serving his sentence.
White agreed the consequences of large-scale incarceration on the families left behind were often shattering, noting he was “just beginning to bond” with his adult son, who was a child when he was sent inside.
“I told him ‘you know more about fatherhood than I do,'” said White, 80, who has been spearheading efforts to improve prison conditions since his release, focusing on education and better health care for prisoners serving life sentences.
White is currently developing a program with the American Friends Committee called “Hope Lives for Lifers.”