Black families are missing someone at the holiday table due to mass incarceration

Emmanuel A. Otiko | 11/25/2015, midnight
The holiday season is stressful enough for people having to deal with crowded shops and family members who don’t always ...

One of the biggest problems for Black families dealing with long-term incarceration is how to handle the children. Many of these young peoople go long periods without seeing their parents, and eventually grow up on their own. The incarcerated parent is often forced to try to establish a relationship with their child who they may have last seen, when the person was a baby.

Downey said parent-child relationships with incarcerated moms and dads have to be handled very carefully.

“If family members are close and were used to their loved ones being around, it will be beneficial to continue building healthy bonds to form and maintain healthy relationships,” she said. “If a child has never met his or her father or mother, for example, then it might cause the child more harm since the relationship was never established to begin with.”

Lake said mass incarceration has particularly affected Black children, because so many African American mothers are caught in the criminal justice system.

“It’s very hard on the children; the parents know that they made a mistake, but the children do not always understand the parents’ actions and what the parents are being punished for,” Lake said. “The children are always the most affected and yet are the least aware of the long-term effects these situations can have on a family.”

According to Lake, some states have adopted prison policies to make life a little easier for families. Some states allow low-security prisoners to bond with their families on holidays. HOW

For example, California and Florida both allow inmates to have visitors on Thanksgiving and Christmas. There are also programs that allow inmates to interact with their children.

“Last year, a prison in Miami, Fla., hosted a father-daughter dance that was meant to encourage the men to be better for their daughters once they are released,” Lake said.

Downey said its critical that families try to maintain relationships with incarcerated family members because this helps prepare the individuals for the outside world, when they are eventually released. She said family members during visits can help introduce inmates to things people on the outside take for granted, like cell phones or setting up a social media account. They also show them how to apply for jobs when they get out.

“When there is no family relationship or support during incarceration, prisoners are not as prepared to handle what's to come,” Downey said. “They might not have a stable place or environment to reside at; they may feel isolated and unsupported, which can contribute to feeling inadequate, hopeless, and [may caue them to] resort to past behaviors that led to incarceration initially.”

According to the website Prison Legal News, 40 years of research shows that maintaining relations with families help reduce recidivism. A 1972 study found only 50 percent of prisoners who received no visits from family completed their first year of parole without being arrested. However, 70 percent of prisoner who had regular visits managed to stay arrest-free during their first year outside jail.