January 11, 2006
Nell Bernstein Asks Us To 'See' the Children of Incarcerated Americans
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
ONE-HALF of all boys who have a parent in jail or prison will also wind up incarcerated. ONE-IN-EIGHT African-American children has a parent behind bars today. ONE-IN-TEN American children has a parent who is under penal supervision – incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.
Nell Bernstein reveals these startling statistics and so much more in her new book: All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated. Bernstein navigates the complexities, scope, and injustices of America's criminal justice system as seen through the eyes of children who are left behind when moms and dads are taken away to jail or prison. Bernstein's stellar analysis of policy pales before her ability to tell the stories of children and families caught in a vicious cycle. The truth is that the punishment dealt to a parent far too often ensnares young people, despite best efforts and good intentions, to a life of struggle, poverty, and even crime.
However, Bernstein's book is a triumph of hope over despair – she offers solutions, not cynicism. If we have the courage to reform our penal system by bringing children to the forefront in every step of the criminal justice process, we can in fact rehabilitate people, put families back together, and cut the link that pulls down so many children before they're given a fighting chance to have a fair shot at life.
Nell Bernstein is an award-winning journalist and former Soros Justice Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute of New York. Her articles have appeared in Newsday, Mother Jones, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and two children.
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BuzzFlash: Your new book, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, tells the stories of children whose parents are sent to prison or jail. Can you give us an idea of the scope of this problem?
Nell Bernstein: It’s pretty staggering – 2.4 million kids are estimated to have a parent who’s currently incarcerated. That’s about three in every hundred kids. Seven million, or one in ten kids, has a parent who’s either in jail, in prison, on probation, or on parole right now, and most people who are on parole are African-American. So those kids are living right on the edge of losing a parent. When you think about the number of kids who have had this experience at some point, it’s quite alarming.
BuzzFlash: It’s not rare.
Nell Bernstein: No, it’s not rare at all. It means that in a typical classroom there are going to be kids who are having or have had this experience. Since I’ve written this book, literally everywhere I go, people come up to me and tell me it affects their family.
BuzzFlash: I want to talk with you about the dismal and ineffective policies within our criminal justice system but I also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about children – actual young people whose lives are affected. You tell many of the children’s stories in your book. What stories most affected you?
Nell Bernstein: It’s hard to focus on just one. I’ll tell you the story that started the book for me. Close to ten years ago, I was reporting on foster care. While interviewing a young boy, I asked him how he had come to be in foster care. He told me that one day the police came to his house and took his mother – he never found out why – and left him at 9-years-old alone with a baby brother. And this kid spent two weeks alone, giving his brother a bottle, changing his brother’s diaper. And he remembered that every day, his mother used to take them out for a walk, so every day, he got out the stroller and took his brother down the street in the stroller. And finally after two weeks of this, somebody noticed and made a phone call.
At the time, I thought it was this incredibly bizarre thing. But when I really began to talk to kids who’d experienced a parent’s arrest, I heard similar stories. Those stories of kids left alone in empty apartments affected me.
BuzzFlash: The undercurrent of this problem is that the United States is incarcerating more and more people, especially over the last thirty years, mostly from drug arrests and non-violent crime. Can you explain this trend and why it’s continuing? Are we still fighting the "drug war" from the eighties?
Nell Bernstein: The number of people behind bars has increased something like five-fold in the past quarter century or so. But over roughly that same period, the number of people behind bars on drug charges increased twelve-fold. So that is definitely what is fueling this. There’s no evidence that the drug war has curbed the availability of drugs.
These kids have often been told their parents have been taken from them in the name of making their neighborhood safer. But these kids are no better off. Their neighborhoods aren’t safer. Plus, during the last 25 years, the number of illegal drug users has nearly doubled. The drug war has left kids vulnerable to everything that comes with having a parent who’s incarcerated, and everything that comes with having a parent who’s addicted – which is also a serious danger to children, and I don’t want to downplay that.
Why is it still happening? I’m not sure, because there’s been a really interesting shift in public opinion in the last ten years or so. If you look at public opinion polls ten years ago, there was this kind of lock ‘em up, law and order approach. If you look at public opinion more recently, it’s quite nuanced. People are interested in alternatives to incarceration, drug treatment, and thinking in terms of prevention. But the politicians haven’t caught up.
Recently, California executed Tookie Williams, and people are going around saying that Schwarzenegger read the polls and gave into public opinion. That’s been the critique of his failure to give clemency. But he didn’t read the public opinion polls. There’s been a shift around the death penalty, just like there’s been a shift around excessive enforcement around drugs. But the politicians are slow on the uptake.
BuzzFlash: People are a little more sophisticated now, and the "law and order" rhetoric hasn’t proven true. I think what a lot of people used to say in the eighties and early nineties about reducing crime through only punishment and enforcement hasn’t produced the results that people said it would.
Nell Bernstein: It’s interesting talking to kids. One thing that was enlightening to me was how children develop morally and develop their relationship to law and authority when their parents are taken away. I talked a lot about this with Carl Bernard, who was seventeen when I met him. Carl's mom is doing triple life plus twenty years for being involved in her husband’s cocaine business. She was told she would die of old age in prison. And Carl kept saying to me, “I wish I could meet the judge. I wish I could tell him that my mom’s a very different person now – that she’s sorry and she’s never gonna do it again.” And he kept trying to get me to explain to him why it didn’t matter that she was sorry and trying to make good with her life.
We try to teach kids that if you do something wrong, you try to do better. This is on my mind right now, because I think California sent a strong message – not only that sorry didn’t matter, but that we don’t believe in the idea of rehabilitation and redemption. I think that a society that sends its kids that message is going to run into some challenges as we try to educate them morally.
BuzzFlash: If a parent is involved in selling drugs or some other criminal activity, that in and of itself is no doubt hurting and endangering a child. On some level, the justice system and social workers are in a very difficult spot between prosecuting the parent, thereby separating them from a child, or letting the situation continue. Neither one seems particularly like a great solution. But as I understand it, you’re saying, even if the parent is doing something that we don’t agree with or endangering a child, you’re saying that separation is still worse. Is that correct?
Nell Bernstein: No, that’s too simple. I’m not a prison abolitionist. It’s a bit more complicated than that in two senses. One, some people who are arrested and charged with a crime are not taking good care of their kids, and some are. I think that we automatically assume that once somebody is arrested, that means they’re a bad parent. And sometimes that’s true. There are lots of things that people do – drugs come to mind first of all – that will endanger their kids. But there are a lot of people out there who broke a law and took good care of their kids.
Carl Bernard had no idea his parents were involved in drugs. His mom picked him up at school every day. They had luncheons on the weekend. He remembers her tucking him in every night. It’s not axiomatic that if you’re arrested, you’re not taking good care of your kids.
But let’s put that aside for a minute and admit that a lot of times there are serious vulnerabilities in these families. I think that the question we need to ask is: Is our intervention ultimately making things better or worse for these kids? Stephen Richards, a criminologist I quote from in the book, says a successful correctional system wouldn’t grow if we were correcting, or rehabilitating people – it would shrink. And that always stayed with me.
There was another kid I talked to whose mother had a drug problem. He was fifteen. When the police came and arrested her, they said over their shoulder, “Call someone to come take care of you.” But he didn’t have anyone to call, so he spent six months alone in the apartment. Lights got cut off. Water got cut off. Heat got cut off. He ran out of food. His mother had a drug problem. But what he said to me was: Couldn’t they have sent her to the program down the street? Made her do community service? And he said of his mother, she’s hurting herself by doing drugs, but having her gone is hurting me. And I think that says it all.
There are a lot of those things that we could do better to offer kids the prospect of getting their mom back in six months or a year, or five years, and in better shape. But the problem is that we’re arresting people with drug problems, putting them in environments where they can get drugs -- because there are drugs in the prisons – but they can’t get treatment, and then releasing them in worse shape than they went in.
BuzzFlash: Is part of the problem that we have limited the authority of judges, parole officers, and social workers to identify the unique and subtle differences among individual cases, crimes, and families?
Nell Bernstein: You’ve hit the nail on the head. What you’re talking about is the mandatory sentencing laws that have become increasingly prevalent in the past couple of decades. They have removed judges’ discretion to consider, in a lot of cases, anything except the weight of the drugs that were confiscated. The truth is that we should be considering the differences amongst cases instead of a paint-by-numbers sentencing policy.
The other devil’s advocate question I get all the time is whether these same parents should get special treatment. And I don't agree with that. I think the truth is most prisoners actually are parents. But those who aren’t are somebody’s son or somebody’s cousin or somebody’s uncle. And I think that we’d have a better system if it looked at everybody as somebody who’s connected to a family and take that into account.
BuzzFlash: Let’s talk about gender. Our penal system takes away and affects many poor urban men. We hear so much about young men not having male role models. Does your research reveal which is more devastating to a child – to lose their mother or father? Is there any difference at all?
Nell Bernstein: The truth is to the degree that attention has been paid to this issue, it’s focused on women. A woman who’s arrested is much more likely to have been the sole provider of her child. If a man is arrested, the odds are pretty good that the child will stay with his mother. But if the mother is arrested, the kid is probably going to wind up with grandma or in foster care.
But we don’t want to leave fathers out of this conversation. Even if Dad is not living with them, even if he’s not a big part of their life, even if they almost never see him, Dads matter. That absent, incarcerated father that you never got to visit – he factors big in kids’ imaginations and in their lives. People who’ve done good parenting research in prisons have found that incarceration can be an opportunity to reconnect a father with his kids, and actually look at some of those things that have been keeping him out of their lives if the Dad is trying to support and rebuild his relationship. And kids have told me over and over that they want to build a relationship with their fathers, even if they're in prison. It's important to them. Since the numbers of men who are incarcerated are so much greater than the numbers of women, I do think it’s a mistake to overlook men in this conversation.
BuzzFlash: Is the core of the issue ending the drug war as we know it? Is that the 800-pound gorilla in the room? If we could change the drug war as we know it to a system of rehabilitation, would a lot of these other problems shake out?
Nell Bernstein: Mostly yes. The wonderful thing about writing a book is that you get to talk to all kinds of people and have your mind changed over and over. A big influence on my thinking was an excellent prisoner support organization in New York. I met one woman whose two children have grown up while their father has been incarcerated most of their lives for a felony murder. And she really helped me to understand that we need to start by respecting all children’s right to be parented. We shouldn’t be categorizing kids based on if their parent committed a violent or non-violent crime. Their needs are still the same.
It doesn’t mean that we need to let everybody out, like I said, so they can go home with their kids. But her children’s father has been a father to them, even though he has been incarcerated their whole lives. And I think we just need to remember that all kids need and deserve that.
That said, I think if we had a rational, effective response to drugs – that if it included incarceration it would be used in a judicious way instead of a haphazard and obsessive way – we would solve many of what we consider to be child welfare issues in this country and also invest in better healthcare and education in our communities.
BuzzFlash: After a crime has been committed, it’s most often too late. If we could switch to a prevention paradigm where we address issues before crimes are committed, it would obviously go a long way.
Nell Bernstein: When I talked about public opinion polls, I talked about a growing public support for prevention, which is kind of a nebulous notion. But again, talking to parents and young people is revealing, because they have this way of taking abstractions and making them very real. Researchers talk about so-called million-dollar blocks, which exist in cities across the country. A million-dollar block is a block where we’re spending that much money to incarcerate people on one block. By that notion, we could immediately start thinking about other ways to spend that million dollars to prevent crime on their block.
I talked with a girl who spent time alone with her older brothers after her mother was arrested. We were talking about this notion of a cycle – in other words, kids whose parents were incarcerated who felt they were going on to be incarcerated themselves - and what would break that circle. She said in their community, all the resources for kids like the recreation centers are gone or shut down. I think there should be a program to help kids cope with the fact that their mother is arrested. She said that she needed something to help her cope with what happened. She would have liked to go camping, horseback riding, rock climbing. She told me, you need to know you can go through that stuff, get out of the cycle, do so much more and be so much more. Another kid whose mother was in and out of prison throughout his childhood said, “If somebody has a drug problem, why spend money sending them to prison? Why not spend that money on turning that family into a successful family?” Kids know how to turn a discussion of "prevention" into something very concrete.
BuzzFlash: Your book is really a story of hope and possibility and offering solutions, and I appreciate that you invested yourself so thoroughly in finding ways to turn the situation around. It’s easy to just say what the problem is and not come up with options. Let’s go through a couple. The first place where the justice system really meets parents and children is during an arrest. How could this event be changed to at least consider the impact and trauma on children?
Nell Bernstein: I’m feeling hopeful about that because I work with a group called the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership. We just had a meeting with our local police department to hash out a protocol that would protect kids at the time of arrest. And they signed on.
I think the first thing that we all need to do is make kids visible within these various systems, because a kid has to be pretty invisible to be left behind in an empty apartment. The great majority of police departments don’t have any kind of policy or protocols. I think they should. And at the very least, those protocols should make sure that thoughtful arrangements are made for a child’s care when a parent is arrested.
I went around the country and looked at jurisdictions that had come up with better models. I was impressed with what I saw in New Haven, Connecticut, where the police have partnered with the Child Study Center to weave a net of support around children whose parents are involved with the police in that community. The police there are trained in child development. They have a 24-hour pager number where they can call a clinician to come support kids immediately at the time of arrest or any other trauma. They hold weekly case conferences with clinicians, police, social workers, child welfare people, to talk about kids in the wake of parental arrest. So there are some good models out there. It’s just that they remain the exception rather than the norm.
BuzzFlash: On page 5 of your book, you wrote, “Decades of attachment research underscore the obvious. Kids need parents, do better in their presence, suffer when the relationship to a parent is severed or breached.” Besides absence, as you just discussed, one of the areas that potentially hurts children emotionally, especially with issues of shame and humiliation, is visiting parents in jail or prison. How can this process be reformed to be more child-centered?
Nell Bernstein: Visiting a parent in jail or prison is tricky because there are a lot of things that make it very difficult for kids. But there’s a good body of research, not to mention what kids will just tell you, that it’s better for them to visit parents even under difficult conditions. Kids who don’t visit a parent generally don’t understand that it’s because somebody thinks the prison environment is bad for them. They feel abandoned and like their parents don’t want them. They develop elaborate fantasies.
In terms of visitation, one thing that’s happened is that part of the prison boom has been the fact that we’ve built more and more of our new prisons way out in the middle of nowhere, where kids can’t get to them. Twenty years ago, I think 8% of women prisoners had not ever received a visit from their kids. Now the majority of men and women have never received a visit from their kids. That’s because we’re putting the prisons way out in the middle of nowhere where they become rural job development programs, but where they’re inaccessible to families.
But going back, when a parent is arrested, the first place that he or she is going to go is the county jail. And almost all county jails have window visiting, which is what you see on TV with the glass and the phones. And that just literally drives children crazy. You hear about kids banging on the glass, banging their heads on the glass. One service provider told me about a toddler who became so hysterical when he couldn’t figure out how to get his mother out of that box that he wound up in the emergency room after a visit because they just couldn’t get him to stop crying.
Once a parent is sentenced and convicted, he probably will go to state or federal prison, where it’s a big open room. But there is still this array of ritual humiliations children have to go through in terms of being searched, going through a metal detector and things like that before visiting a parent.
BuzzFlash: At BuzzFlash, we focus a lot on framing – the way that people think of political issues and use language to communicate values. The conservative frame is most often equated with a strict father metaphor versus liberals who view political values as a nurturant parent metaphor. Although these ideas are simple, they’re also quite instructive.
In regards to your book, the conservative frame would say the parents are bad, not the system. Their crimes and the impact on their children are their own fault. The parents are to blame for being bad parents. The nurturant model would ask: What is the impact of these policies? What is our shared responsibility as a community? Are these policies working as we intended them to?
But I think a lot of people – not just conservatives – feel uncomfortable with the perception, and I’m stressing perception, that because a person who commits a crime is also a parent, that somehow he or she will get a lighter sentence. Again, I’m speaking of perception, not reality. Since you’ve worked on these issues, do you have any ideas how to communicate the solutions you offer in such a way that reduces that knee-jerk conservative, strict-father frame that so many people have when we talk about crime and punishment?
Nell Bernstein: That’s a really interesting question. Let me try to give you the strict father argument for considering kids. People damn well should be taking care of their own kids. Why the hell should you get to sit in a cell, get medical care, three meals a day, and watch television, while I and other taxpayers take care of your kids?
That’s not a model that encourages you to be accountable. I think that we need a model that encourages genuine accountability.
But incapacitation, which is what prison does, is not the only response to crime. When you incapacitate people by putting them in jail, you're taking away their ability to fulfill their roles as parents and members of the community. We could in fact have a system that gives people treatment if they're abusing drugs and still demand responsibility from them, for example. We could offer employment and job training programs as well.
We haven’t really talked about the incredible array of restrictions that we put on people when they re-enter society with a felony conviction. Especially since September 11th, many parents are barred from just about any kind of employment, not to mention any kind of public assistance. People often come out of jail or prison with the sense of "I want to do better this time. I want to take care of my kids. I want to get my life straight. I want to settle down." But we don’t let them work. We don’t let them access the resources they need to support their kids. Now they’re trying to get on their feet. If their kids are in foster care, we don’t want them to have their kids back. We don’t let them be accountable and stable in the way that I think the stern father would actually like them to be.
BuzzFlash: What needs to happen to reform the system?
Nell Bernstein: I think we need to make a commitment to seeing these children. We can not allow ourselves to talk about crime and solutions to crime in a way that is abstract enough to permit their continued invisibility.
I’d like those among us who favor accountability to be accountable to kids.
I propose that police and/or probation officers should submit to a judge a family impact statement prior to sentencing - just as, when you tear down a building, you have to come up with an environmental impact statement about what the impact is going to be and how you’re going to mitigate it. When you tear down a family, even if you need to do it – just like you need to tear down some buildings – you should come up with a statement about how it's going to affect the children involved.
BuzzFlash: As it is now, kids aren't even something we think about in the equation.
Nell Bernstein: No, they're not. During arrest, booking, sentencing, when you’re sent to prison, when you’re released, when you meet your probation officer - at none of those points, with very few exceptions, does anybody even ask if you have kids. These issues are just not on the table. I think we need to insert the kids into every piece of the conversation.
I keep stressing accountability because kids stress that. If we looked at the system through their eyes – and parental criminality is a problem in their eyes – and looked at sentences that would genuinely encourage people to be accountable to their families, their communities, and their victims, we would be on our way to a system that did correct people, did shrink our prison population, and did work for young people.
BuzzFlash: Nell, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Nell Bernstein: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by BuzzFlash Senior Editor Scott Vogel.
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Support independent bookstores by ordering All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, by Nell Bernstein, from Powell's Online.
Articles by Nell Bernstein on AlterNet: http://www.alternet.org/authors/215