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69 Fed. Probation 31 (2005)
Families and Children of Offenders Who Return Home

handle is hein.journals/fedpro69 and id is 33 raw text is: June 2005                                                                                                           31
Jeremy Travis
President, John Jay College of Criminal Justice

AS THE NATION debates the wisdom of a
fourfold increase in our incarceration rate over
the past generation, one fact is dear. Prisons
separate prisoners from their families. Every
individual sent to prison leaves behind a net-
work of family relationships. Prisoners are the
children, parents, siblings, and kin to untold
numbers of relatives who are each affected dif-
ferently by a family member's arrest, incarcera-
tion, and ultimate homecoming.
Little is known about imprisonment's
impact on these family networks. Descrip-
tive data about the children of incarcerated
parents only begin to tell the story. During
the 1990s, as the nation's prison population
increased by half, the number of children
who had a parent in prison also increased by
half-from 1 million to 1.5 million. By the
end of 2002, 1 in 45 minor children had a
parent in prison (Mumola 2004).' These chil-
dren represent 2 percent of all minor children
in America, and a sobering 7 percent of all
African-American children (Mumola 2000).
With little if any public debate, we have
extended prison's reach to include hundreds
of thousands of young people who were not
the prime target of the criminal justice poli-
cies that put their parents behind bars.
In the simplest human terms, prison places
an indescribable burden on the relationships
between these parents and their children.
Incarcerated fathers and mothers must learn
to cope with the loss of normal contact with
their children, infrequent visits in inhospitable
surroundings, and lost opportunities to con-
tribute to their children's development. Their
children must come to terms with the reality

of an absent parent, the stigma of parental
imprisonment, and an altered support system
that may include grandparents, foster care,
or a new adult in the home. In addition, in
those communities where incarceration rates
are high, the experience of having a mother
or father in prison is now quite common-
place, with untold consequences for foster care
systems, multigenerational households, social
services delivery, community norms, child-
hood development, and parenting patterns.
Imprisonment profoundly affects families
in another, less tangible way. When young
men and women are sent to prison, they are
removed from the traditional rhythms of dat-
ing, courtship, marriage, and family forma-
tion. Because far more men than women are
sent to prison each year, our criminal justice
policies have created a gender imbalance
(Braman 2002), a disparity in the number
of available single men and women in many
communities. In neighborhoods where incar-
ceration and reentry have hit hardest, the gen-
der imbalance is particularly striking. Young
women complain about the shortage of men
who are suitable marriage prospects because
so many of the young men cycle in and out
of the criminal justice system. The results are
an increase in female-headed households and
narrowed roles for fathers in the lives of their
children and men in the lives of women and
families in general. As more young men grow
up with fewer stable attachments to girl-
friends, spouses, and intimate partners, the
masculine identity is redefined. The family
is often depicted as the bedrock of American
society. Over the years, we have witnessed

wave after wave of social policy initiatives
designed to strengthen, reunite, or simply
create families. Liberals and conservatives
have accused each other of espousing poli-
cies that undermine family values. In recent
years, policyrnakers, foundation officers, and
opinion leaders have also decried the absence
of fathers from the lives of their children.
These concerns have translated into a variety
of programs, governmental initiatives, and
foundation strategies that constitute a father-
hood movement. Given the iconic stature of
the family in our vision of American life and
the widespread consensus that the absence of
father figures harms future generations, our
national experiment with mass incarceration
seems, at the very least, incongruent with the
rhetoric behind prevailing social policies.
At worst, the imprisonment of millions of
individuals and the disruption of their family
relationships has significantly undermined
the role that families could play in promoting
our social well-being. The institution of fam-
ily plays a particularly important role in the
crime policy arena. Families are an integral
part of the mechanisms of informal social
control that constrain antisocial behavior.
The quality of family life (e.g., the presence
of supportive parent-child relationships)
is significant in predicting criminal delin-
quency (Loeber and Farrington 1998, 2001).
Thus, if families suffer adverse effects from
our incarceration policies, we would expect
these harmful effects to be felt in the next
generation, as children grow up at greater
risk of engaging in delinquent and crimi-
nal behavior. The institution of marriage is

* This article is Chapter Six of But They All Come Back Facing the Challenges of Prisoner Reentry, by Jeremy Travis (Washington DC: The Urban Institute Press,
2005). Reprinted with permission.

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