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Collateral Damage: The Children of Prisoners

Carlos Kelly was six years old when, in December of 1991, his mother, Caridad, was arrested by federal agents in Florida for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.

"I remember it was, like, me and my stepbrothers and sisters, we was all gathered in the playroom," says Carlos, now 16. "I told my mom that the Nintendo was brokethis is what I remember the mostI asked my mom if she could get us a new one. She went out to get the new Nintendo, and she never came back."

Caridad and her husband ran a small travel agency and money wiring business in Tampa near their home. She stopped by the office on her way to the store. "I was at work," she recalls. "It was right before, the week before Christmas. I wanted to go to Toys R Us, I remember; I wanted to get Carlos a Nintendo. I wanted to close up my business. My accountant and my husband were sitting there getting the daily deposit ready. I saw all these people coming in from every doorall these people with guns everywhere. I thought it was a holdup at first. They hooded us and took us away in separate cars."

Carlos remembers the FBI coming to his house. "A little while [after his mother left] all these FBI guys were there, asking questions. They didn't talk to me at all. I kind of picked things up on my own, seeing, like, the FBI, and my mom didn't come for a long time. I kind of figured out she was arrested. My grandmother told me later. I thought it was, like, my fault because she went out to get us a new one."

Carlos and his siblings went to stay with relatives. He doesn't remember how long it was until he saw his mother again; Caridad says that Carlos visited her in the jail two or three weeks later. Her trial didn't start for almost two years, and she remained in jail as the government prepared a complicated prosecution against a drug ring that, Caridad found out in the course of her trial, had been in operation for decades. One of Caridad's co-defendants, facing life in prison, had turned evidence against enough other people to procure for himself a seven-year sentence.

"The whole thing started in the early 1970s," she says. "The whole thing just came floating down the river. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and married the wrong jerk."

Carlos attended her trial, which was held in Tampa. "All my stepbrothers and almost the whole family went," he said. "I went almost every day. It was harshto me it was harsh, not being able to talk with my mom but being able to see her. I don't knowit was hard. It's hard to explain. I felt sort of like alone, but not totally."

Caridad was sentenced to the mandatory minimum121 monthsplus 48 months for money laundering. Carlos went to live with Caridad's mother.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the population of state and federal prisons has grown by more than 490,000 prisoners since 1991, an increase of 62 percent. The war on drugs is an important factor in this increase: It tripled the number of arrests for drug offenses from 581,000 in 1980 to 1,584,000 in 1997. In 1980 drug offenders represented 6 percent of state-prisoner and 25 percent of federal-prisoner populations; by 1996 these numbers had grown to 23 percent of state and 60 percent of federal prisoners. [By May 2002, 55% of the 157,000 federal prisoners were incarcerated for drug crimes.]

The effects of this increase are grotesquely magnified in the African- American community, as a recent report by Human Rights Watch documents. Black men are incarcerated 9.6 times more frequently than white men; in 11 states, it's 12 to 26 times more often. While five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, 62 percent of drug offenders admitted to state prisons are black.

The increase in incarceration has not necessarily lowered the crime rate. In fact, a 1997 Sentencing Project report showed that between 1985 and 1995 the incarceration rate in the United States nearly doubled while crime rates on the whole remained unchanged, rising from 1985 to 1991 but declining from 1991 to 1995. Research indicates that many factors contribute to reductions in crime, including an improved economy, new methods of community policing, and demographic changes.

Whether or not the war on drugs and crime is effective law enforcement policy, one thing is clear: More than 250,000 more American parents are in prison today than in 1991, the number of children with a mother in prison having nearly doubled in the same period. Seven percent of black childrennearly nine times more than white childrenhave a parent in prison.

In all, 1.5 million kids in the United States are children of prisoners, and the effects on their lives are profound. "Some estimates are that children of people in prison are as much as five times more likely to end up in prison themselves," says Jamie Suarez-Potts, program coordinator of the Criminal Justice Program at the Boston chapter of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). "Most children who have parents in prison are already disadvantaged, from poor communities," she explains. "Prison costs money to the family, from the arrest and ensuing trial, and maybe having to hire an attorney. And there are costs assigned to people in prisontelephone, clothing, medical costs. All these have to come from the family. Not to mention travel costs for visits, which can be prohibitive."

Many children whose parents are incarcerated lose contact with them, according to the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), and many live in poverty. Children of prisoners experience a range of difficult emotionsfear, anxiety, abandonment, shame, worry that they'll never see their parent again, sadness, loneliness, guilt. In addition, they may be teased and taunted by their peers, and the stigma attached to having a parent in prison can make it difficult for children to seek help. These emotions, added to the pressures of living in poverty and to whatever disruptions the children may have experienced as a result of parents' criminal behavior, put children of prisoners at increased risk for doing badly in school or dropping out, as well as for early pregnancy, drug abuse, and delinquency.

"We understand that kids go through trauma when their parents get divorced or die," says Marsha Weissman, executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives (CCA) in New York. "This is experienced as trauma for the kids, and they need some support and help dealing with it. For kids, it's about dealing with a range of emotions, from anger to hero worship. When the mother's away, it's about getting used to a new caregiver settingnew neighborhood, maybe other children in the home."

In the summer of 1999, a Massachusetts trial court seeking possible ways to divert offenders from incarceration commissioned Maureen Norton-Hawk, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Suffolk University in Boston, to study 70 women who were in jail awaiting trial and who, among them, had 144 children.

"The women had histories of poor education, lack of job skills," notes Norton-Hawk. "Most had some form of drug addiction, and most of them have major problems in terms of family dysfunction. A large percentage have been verbally, physically, or sexually abused. And the children show the same things."

A little more than half of the children studied were male. Thirty-three percent had already repeated a grade, and 35 percent were involved in special education (high above the 18 percent average in Boston's public schools). Forty-one percent of the kids had been neglected, 21 percent physically abused, and 14 percent sexually abused. Thirty-one percent had problems with anxiety; 21 percent, with depression. Six percent had suicidal thoughts.

The average age of the children in the study was seven.

"These numbers are very similar to results I'm finding now, working with women who are awaiting trial for any offense," says Norton-Hawk. "The majority of these mothers are going to get out and are going to have some relationship, whether it's primary care or not, with these children. Twenty-nine percent of the biological fathers had never been involved with these kids. Then you take the mother away. Imagine if you were a kid, and your father was never involved and your mother's in prison. And then we wonder why some kids do some of the horrible things they do.

"From one generation to another," she continues, "you start out struggling because your parents were struggling, and everything that happens to these kids happened to their mothers before them."

The CCA's Weissman agrees. "It's not like nobody needs to be incarcerated," she says, "or that no kids need to be removed from homes. But we're using these as our first resort, not our last resort. You may take the parent out of the home, but where is the kid going? It's not like we have wonderful places for these kids to go in most cases. These kids have so many other risk factors, and parental incarceration is one more."

Trying to Help

Jean Canty has a full-time job as a schoolwide instructional administrator for curriculum at Montgomery County High School in Ramer, Alabama. She also has a part-time job three nights a week and runs Save Kids of Incarcerated Parents (SKIP), an organization that lines up churches, school organizations, community service organizationsanyone in the community who is willingto work with children of prisoners.

"I'm also getting into the school system," Canty says, "talking with counselors and teachers to make them aware of these children."

Canty started SKIP in Florida in the late 1970s, after her husband at the time was sent to federal prison. "He had a mail contracting business," she explains. "I believe he was going through people's mail, taking their money. The FBI was investigating. I didn't know what was going on until they were questioning me."

Through the course of the investigation and trial, Canty lost everything. "I was devastated," she says. "I didn't have food stamps; I didn't have anything. They'd taken my house and everything else. I had to go live with a friend of mine and sent our son to live with my mom for a while."

Eventually, she moved into an apartment with her son. Some time later, one of her husband's children from a previous marriage called. "He said he was getting ready to run away," Canty recalls. She offered him a place to live. She also started trying to find services for children of incarcerated parents. "There were none," she says. "So I started my own."

Canty moved to Alabama in 1989 and, unable to find an organization providing the support services that she had tried to offer, started SKIP again. In 2000 there were 19 kids in the program.

"You can apply for different grants," according to Canty, "but there's nothing specifically there. There are grants for the homeless, for anything you can imaginebut not specifically for children of prisoners. There is one foundation that found me on the Web and contacted me. They don't want to publicize it, [but] I was able to get a $13,000 grant from them.

"The children feel ostracized; they feel penalized," Canty reports. "They might feel penalized twice if the parents are in there for child abuse. Children, no matter what, love their parents, and they need some way to have a bridge to their parents." So Canty works her two jobs and keeps SKIP going.

"There's people out there trying to do things in little ways here and there, but no one's bringing it all together," she says. "I'm still interested someday in getting the government to address this nationwide. It'll come when everybody sees that there's a need to address the children... . If we can capture the children of prisoners and keep them from going to prison, we'll make a better place for everyone."

"There are only two things that all the studies absolutely show reduce recidivism," says the AFSC's Suarez-Potts. "One is education and the other is strong contactsties with family and community."

On the federal level, each prison sets up its own parenting classes for prisoners. Other than that, according to Federal Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Traci Billingsley, there are no federal policies relating to prisoners with children except for visitation rules. Prisoners are not even asked if they have children when they are processed into the system.

In 1997 the CWLA conducted a nationwide survey of the services available to children of prisoners through state-run child welfare systems. Of the thirty-eight states that responded, only six reported that they have specific policies covering children of prisoners. And just four said they provided support groups for children of incarcerated parents.

"I think it's pretty much local groups trying to do this work," says Marsha Weissman. "I have not heard of a systematic approach on the part of any state. We started our program with a small private foundation grant, less than $10,000, and since that grant has run out, we've been keeping it going on a shoestring by redeploying staff, taking on extra responsibilities, getting some interns from a local social-work school. Children with parents in prison is a problem that no one's taking a look at. We're sticking our heads in the sand."

Ignoring the bonds between children and their incarcerated parents would seem to be counterproductive. In doing so, we increase exponentially the risk that released parents will wind up in prison again and that their children will someday join them in the system.

A Matter of Proximity

Yraida Guanipa is working to change the way we deal with children of prisoners. At age 32, after seven years of trying, she got pregnant by artificial insemination; a month after her first son was born, she got pregnant againthis time, she says, by miracle. Her sons, Yrwil Jesus and Jeswil José, are now six and five years old, respectively.

Guanipa had been working as general manager in a mail facility in the Miami area for seven years when, in 1995, she was asked to "verify" a package for a regular customer who didn't speak English. In September of the following year, she was convicted in federal court of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and was sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in prison. With her mandatory-minimum sentence, she won't be eligible for parole and can only accumulate 54 days of "good time" in a year. Her release date is 2007.

"I usually talk to my sons two or three times a week for 15 minutes," she says. "The last time I saw them was last year, December 17 [1999]. I haven't seen them since then."

In January of 2000on the fifth day of a hunger strike designed to force the Bureau of Prisons to move her to a Miami facility closer to her children and to allow her a day furlough to visit with themGuanipa was moved from a prison camp in Coleman, Florida (about 275 miles from Miami), to the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee (nearly 500 miles from Miami). The Bureau of Prisons told her that the Miami facility didn't have room for her and that she would not be eligible for day furloughs until the last two years of her confinement.

Letting prisoners see their children outside of the prison environment is extremely important for the children's understanding, Guanipa asserts. Having children see their parents only in prison can make prison seem okay to them. "It breaks my heart that my son told my mother he wants to go see Mami to get candy," she says.

She is still struggling with the Bureau of Prisons to be moved closer to her children and to create programs that allow parents in prison more contact with their kids. She is also trying to maintain a bond with Yrwil and Jeswil.

"I write them a bunch of letters," she says. "I make books for them. I write little short stories. I draw for them. I knit sweaters, crochet. I make cards for them. I cannot afford to lose that bond. They know Mami very well and they wait for the letters, the drawings; they wait for everything. They ask me for thingslike the older one asked, `Mami, send me some adding, and I will do that for you.' They write to me, tell me about their school friends."

For the past five years, Guanipa has also been helping other women prisoners with their appeals. "I feel so sorry for these people," she says. "They don't speak the language, they don't see their children, so I have to file motions for them." As part of her ongoing efforts, she contacted former Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, who, while serving in Washington, had taken an interest in the plight of women in prison. He has been working with Guanipa in her attempts to be moved closer to her children.

"Having dealt with a lot of prison problems over the years," Simon explains, "my strong instinct is, here's someone whoif she could be out of prisoncould really be a constructive force. Having her in prison is not good for her, not good for her children. I held hearings 10 years ago on the question of women in prisons. We made some recommendations as a result of that hearing, most of which didn't get anywhere. We have an increasing number of women going to prison, and we ought to be handling it in a way that benefits society."

Better services for children of prisoners and programs to help parents maintain ties are essential, Guanipa insists. Without them, she says, "our children will come to prison. Where are we going to end it? And the only real rehabilitation for a prisoner is their family. If we break that tie, there is no human being left."

Marsha Weissman of the CCA points out that one problem facing anyone who wants to help children of prisoners is how to identify them. These children usually don't want to talk about their situation. "If we didn't know these kids through other programs that we runAIDS awareness, advocacy programs for kids who are charged with crimes, community service learning programs, mentoring, work apprenticeshipsI'm not sure how we would ID them," she says of the roughly 45 children of prisoners she works with each year.

"We should reallocate our expenditures to focus on real preventive services for these kids," Weissman believes. "When people look around for a population to target for preventive money, this is the population." Services for these at-risk children could include support groups, academic and enrichment help, mental health services for dealing with trauma, and preventive services that build on the kids' strengths so they can make good choices for themselves. Weissman also supports community-based corrections as an alternative to incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

Maureen Norton-Hawk, who ran the Suffolk University study, agrees. "I would try a pilot program," she says. "Instead of prison, have a treatment or transitional home where the mother and child are there together. Collaboration between the different service agencies is so important. We need to intervene now, and not when these children start finding their way into the incarceration system."

Carlos Kelly lived in Tampa with his grandmother while his mother, Caridad, was in prison. "Feeling like it was my fault stayed for a while," he says. "My family kept trying to cover it up. They didn't want to tell me. They were waiting for me to have more comprehension, to tell me what really happened."

During a 1997 visit to his mother in prison, Carlos broke down and told her how he felt. "He was very angry at me," Caridad said. "We argued and cried in the visiting room." Carlos recalls: "I told my mom finally, and she said it wasn't my fault. When she told me what really happened, it all, like, came together. I was, like, 12 maybe. I felt a little relief. Yeah, I felt relief. I mean, having that on your mind for a long time... ."

When Caridad was moved to a prison only 45 minutes from her house, Carlos and his grandmother came every other weekend to visit. "I didn't want to burden them," Caridad says, "just because I was there, near them. I understood that they had a life, and I wasn't going to intrude on them. Whenever I needed a visit, really needed one, I would call and say, `Ma, I really need a visit.' But I tried not to do that, because I knew financially they really couldn't do that.

"I know mothers that struggle in prison," she continues, "crying because their kid is seeing a psychologist or the kid ran away from home or they're gang-banging somewhere. I seen mothers trying to commit suicide in prison. Look, there are women who deserve to be where they're at. There's a lot of people who deserve the time they get. But my God, to be punished for a first-time, nonviolent offense, to get 20 years, to get 10 years, that's ridiculous."

Released on March 29, 2000, after almost nine years in prison, Caridad asked to be placed in a halfway house in Washington, D.C. She wanted to get away from her old situation and not disrupt Carlos's world too quickly.

"I can't just pull him out of one atmosphere," she explains. "We don't know each other. We spent a little time togetherit was like we were brother and sister. I'm learning him; he's learning me. I don't know how to be a mother to a 16-year-old."

"I was really happy when she got out," Carlos says. "She wanted me to stay [in Florida]; she said she didn't want to mess things up. I went up there for the summer."

As of mid-December, Carlos was planning to move to Washington for good. Caridad had picked out his bedroom furniture ahead of time and put it on layaway for when he arrived.

"My mom felt like she let me down and stuff by getting arrested," Carlos says. "But she was a big help. She helped me a lot by telling me things and telling me the truth about things."

He has simple advice for other kids who find themselves with a parent in prison: "Do things to make your parents proud so when they get out they can be proud of you."

[This article originally appeared in The American Prospect. Reprinted with permission .]

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