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All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated

By Nell Bernstein, The New Press; 303 Pages; $25.95

Reviewed by Sheerly Avni

In part because of the war on drugs, in part because of mandatory sentencing laws such as California's three strikes" law, and in part because we have gradually shifted our concept of justice from rehabilitation to punishment over the past 30 years, the United States now ranks as the world's most prolific jailer.

The greatest increases in the prison population have occurred among drug offendersand in particular among women, whose numbers in jail have increased eightfold over three decades. One disturbing by-product of all these imprisonments is that there are now 2.4 million American children who have a mother or father in jail. One in 10 American children has a parent under some sort of probationary supervision.

The consequence to American families has been devastating: In her remarkable new book, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, Bay Area youth advocate and journalist Nell Bernstein sets out to explore the crisis -- one which she suggests will be the civil rights issue of the 21st century." Bernstein introduces us to families struggling to stay together through imprisonment, and through the programs dedicated to trying to help them: a care facility in a prison in Oregon that allows children to spend meaningful time with their mothers in jail, a re-entry program in New York that provides family counseling and parenting classes, an organization in Kansas dedicated to helping grandparents file for financial aid when they suddenly find themselves the sole custodians of their grandchildren.
Chapter by chapter, Bernstein takes us through each lamentable phase of the incarceration cycle, from arrest to sentencing, to visitations and foster care and finally re-entry. She interviews scores of expertspolice officers, criminologists, sociologists and dedicated service providers, many of them reformed offenders who would never have been released from prison had they committed their crimes today.

But Bernstein, also a former editor of the magazine Youth Outlook (this reviewer worked in the same office as Bernstein for a year in the late 90s), derives her best expert testimony from the families themselves, whom she treats not as victims of an unjust system but rather as experts and resources, the best available analysts of their own experience and needs.
And what do these families need? One another. As the 15-year-old son of a drug-addicted mother explains, Using drugs, she's hurting herself. You take her away from me, now you're hurting me."

But in a system that almost seems designed to separate families (one incarcerated mother calls it the great baby-snatching era), relying on the work of isolated innovators is like treating a pandemic with cough syrup. In the cost-cutting and dehumanizing world of the prison system, the last thing administrators think of is the prisoners' private lives. Visiting hours are cut, parole hearings rarely take children into account, and transfers move fathers and mothers hundreds of miles away from their children.

In a particularly wrenching example, Bernstein describes a videoconference between a fourth-grader in Washington, D.C., and his father, jailed in Ohio. Like most people in poor neighborhoods, the boy is on dial-up, and as the video crashes the computer again and again, the boy gradually loses interest in his father's stuttering image. Conversation is impossible: The literal and figurative connection failure highlights a stopgap measure that, as the author writes, can best be described as better than nothing.
Bernstein has ideas for something better than better than nothing," which she lays out in her concise conclusion, where she offers 18 policy suggestions. Most of them are pure common senseremove financial barriers to communication (like the hiked-up fee for collect calls from jail), keep prisoners near their families so they can receive visits, and of course revisit our failed drug policies. What her suggestions have in common, besides being relatively easy (and cheap) to implement, is that they are focused on the basic premise that crime is reduced by keeping families together, not ripping them apart.

In terms of elegance, breadth and persuasiveness, All Alone in the World deserves to be placed alongside other classics of the genre such as Jonathan Kozol's Savage Inequalities, Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family. But to praise the book's considerable literary or sociological merit seems beside the point. This book belongs not only on shelves but also in the hands of judges and lawmakers.

Sheerly Avni is a Bay Area journalist and a workshop facilitator for the Beat Within, a weekly publication by and for incarcerated youth.
Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 18, 2005. Reprinted with permission.

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