Fatherhood is a theme that President Barack Obama has emphasized multiple times during his presidency.
It’s an issue he has personal ties with because his own father was absent during most of his childhood (which formed the subject of his memoir, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance). The president echoes this sentiment again in his 2008 Father’s Day speech:
If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that too many fathers are missing — missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities, acting like boys instead of men. And the foundations of our families are weaker because of it.
In this speech, Obama states that half of all black children in the U.S. today live in single-parent households—the president here intends to demonstrate fault on behalf of black fathers. He finds it disconcerting that this number has risen so substantially in his lifetime.
Yet, what Obama fails to mention is that many of these “missing fathers” are in prison.
In 2007, 52 percent of prisoners were parents. This amounts to 1.1 million absent fathers and 120,000 absent mothers—impacting 2.7 million children—within the prison system alone. That’s more prison-induced, single-parent children than three times the population of San Francisco.
The Price of Parenting Behind Bars
The rhetoric of “missing fathers” is misleading when it comes to imprisoned parents. Although Obama attacks black men specifically, he fails to mention that 1 in 9 black children have a parent in prison, compared to only 1 in 57 white children. While 13 percent of America’s population is African American, 40 percent of all incarcerated parents are black.
Obama’s omission shifts fault and stigma onto the prisoners, even though two-thirds of imprisoned parents have committed nonviolent crimes, and many are victims of harsh and punitive drug sentencing laws.
Imprisoned parents are not voluntarily absent from their children’s lives.
Over 60 percent of prisoners are assigned to prisons more than 100 miles from their original place of residence. The simple obstacle of distance makes it impossible for many incarcerated parents to continue fulfilling parental responsibilities. Unfortunately, the will alone of prisoners to uphold personal responsibility is not enough to pay for the $80 bus rides.
Parental Imprisonment and Child Poverty
More than half of imprisoned parents are the primary wage-earners for their families. Incarceration can lead to extreme financial distress for the entire family, with dire implications for children. With breadwinning parents out of the picture, our country’s egregious child poverty rates are exacerbated. Fathers are especially important in this regard—on average, a family’s income drops by 22 percent when his or her father is incarcerated.
Child poverty already induces toxic stress on children, inhibiting their neurological development. Poverty induced by an incarcerated parent comes with additional stigmas, thus leading to little social and community support.
Children with imprisoned parents also do worse in school, an important indicator of economic mobility. Twenty-three percent of children with incarcerated fathers are expelled or suspended, compared to 4 percent of children without.
Parental imprisonment threatens the well-being of children physically, psychologically, and socially. It impacts the economic and educational status of the children themselves, both important indicators of future economic mobility. For example, children from low-income families that don’t earn college degrees have a 45 percent chance of remaining low-income throughout adulthood.
More research should be done on the effects of parental incarceration on their children since this issue is becoming increasingly pertinent for so many families.
A Prisoner Bill of Rights for Parents?
To address the relationship between incarceration and child poverty, the San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership (SFCIPP) created a bill of rights in 2003. Perhaps the most compelling component of the project are the shared personal narratives that humanize the parental imprisonment experience. One victim of parental imprisonment, Dave, states:
I was nine when my mom got arrested. The police came and took her. I was trying to ask them what was going on and they wouldn't say…they arrested her and just left us there. For two or three weeks I took care of my one-year-old brother and myself. I tried to make breakfast in the morning and I burnt my hand trying to make toast.
Children of prisoners deserve to be informed, well cared for, and able to sustain a relationship with their parents. These are basic tenets of children’s rights that are often overlooked. “Prisoner” is not the main role of the incarcerated—they are also mothers and fathers who deserve to retain a presence in their children’s lives.
If we widen the scope of prison reform, constituents should demand that prison be avoided altogether for a parent (and frankly, anyone) convicted of a nonviolent crime. A successful example of this shift can be seen in drug courts, which give drug offenders intensive treatment and require regular visits to a judge, but allow families to stay together while parents rehabilitate.
Drug courts fall under a larger arena of prison alternatives called community corrections. These include specialty courts, pretrial release, probation, and parole—most of which allow prisoners to remain with their families.
However, due to a lack of funding and the use of incarceration as a primary sanction when parolees break the rules, these alternatives don’t always function as intended. More work should be done to identify best practices within prison alternatives, in order to shift away from mass incarceration.
There is no magic bullet to ease the problems that come with having an incarcerated parent. However, we should push for alternatives to incarceration and implement policy that helps to alleviate the negative consequences for children whose parents have lost their parental agency.
We should also be wary of political rhetoric, such as Obama’s Father’s Day speech, that misrepresents the concept of “missing” black fathers.