The Impact of Incarceration on Children of U.S. Prisoners

Emily Peterson
[We reprint a small part of a research paper written for a class by the daughter of Sara Olson, currently inprisoned at CCWF]
An enormous piece of my family went missing when my mother was sent away to prison. Most children may not understand what’s going on. Why is their parent gone? They may have had no warning.
Children are the hidden victims of the criminal justice system. Having my mother taken away from my family was a very traumatizing event. She now sits in a cell 3,000 miles away from home, and the prison makes it especially difficult for us to be close to her.
The growth of the prison system has dramatically impacted the lives of millions of children. In 1999 U.S. prisons held parents of over 1.5 million children, an increase of over 500,000 since 1991. Children of color are far more likely to have a parent in prison. Black children are nine times more likely to have a parent in prison than white children. Latino children are three times more likely.
When parents have to go away, children feel sad or worried. They may feel abandoned or feel they may never see the parent again. Not a lot of information is given, and many children may worry that something terrible may happen to their parent while in prison. It can hurt a child very much to know that their mother is being treated harshly in prison. I worry about that every day.
Children may feel alone when their mom is gone. We may sometimes feel like we could have done something to prevent this, or be mad at our parent for getting into the trouble that sent them away. The stigma of incarceration is significant. Children get taunted and may be avoided as being part of a “bad” family with criminals in it. Children may feel ashamed of their imprisoned parent. The stigma makes it difficult to seek help.
There are very few resources where families and children can go to ease the impact of incarceration. Few prisons offer child friendly services. I have to fly to San Francisco and then drive three hours to finally visit my mom. Then there are motel and car rental costs. I am lucky I can afford to make that trek. Most families don’t have the means. Half of the children with mothers in prison never visit them because of the lack of opportunity. I can write letters and receive phone calls. Most young children can’t write and those phone calls are incredibly expensive.
For most families, prison tears them apart. We felt that it would do the same for us. But when my mom was sent away, my family realized that the love we had for her was even stronger. Prison visits are the key to helping children stay in contact with their parents, and helping them with the trauma of not having them around.