Roughly 1.7 million minors have a parent behind bars
It has become a well-known fact that the United States incarcerates more than 2.5 million people — a greater percentage of its population than any industrialized nation on Earth, greater numbers than even totalitarian regimes like Russia or China.
But hidden in those statistics are the youngest citizens of the nation who bear the brunt of what experts call mass incarceration — the children of those under the supervision of local, state and federal corrections departments. It is estimated that at least 1.7 million children have one or both parents incarcerated and those numbers are on the rise, according to state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf.
“That 1.7 million figure is an estimation because quite frankly, we really don’t know how many there are. In Pennsylvania alone we have at least 100,000 and the prison population is increasing,” said Greenleaf. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve passed more tough legislation related to crime, and you’d think we’d see the crime rate decrease. It didn’t. Our prison population increased by 500 percent. We’re not dealing with rehabilitation — and punishment without rehabilitation is a failure.”
Sen. Greenleaf’s remarks were made on Thursday afternoon at City Hall during the announcement of a new report just released by the Pennsylvania Prison Society called, “The Effects of Parental Incarceration on Children: Needs and Responsive Services.” The report was ordered by state Rep. Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) and state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery County). Both sponsored separate bills, H.R. 203 and S.R. 52, respectively. The state legislators were also joined by Laura Kaeppeler, Miss America 2012, whose father was incarcerated in federal prison following a conviction for a white collar crime.
“Children of incarcerated parents no longer have to go into the dark shadows,” Parker said. “They can look at Miss America and know they are the same as she is. When I heard her story, it made a strong impact on me — that she had the courage to embrace this as her platform and give these children a national voice. This is a bipartisan issue.”
Kaeppeler’s father, Jeff Kaeppeler, served 18 months in federal prison for mail fraud and began serving time as his daughter was graduating high school and entering college. She said it was an eight-hour drive to visit him in prison.
“Some people challenge me for making this issue my platform,” said Kaeppeler. “But my response is that no matter what the crime is, the pain, the isolation and shame and loneliness and emotional trauma the children of these parents experience is the same. It’s the same whatever the crime. When I look back on that time I knew that none of my friends could relate to what I was going through. I felt as if a great, dark cloud was over my life. I now know that all children of incarcerated parents feel the same.”
According to the report, while the majority of prisoners are men, women constitute the fastest growing segment of the prison population. Between 1991 and 2007, the number of incarcerated mothers doubled nationwide, and most of these women were the primary caregiver for their children. The findings of the study also showed that African-American children are 7.5 times likely to have an incarcerated parent than white children. Latino children are 2.5 times more likely, and the children of these incarcerated individuals are at a higher risk for negative outcomes: juvenile delinquency, behavior problems, low self-esteem and depression.
Among the recommendations the study offers are: Recognize that parents involved with the legal system often have childcare needs which require attention. Establish an appropriate and safe area for children within the courthouse to accommodate the needs of the child while
his/her parent is involved in a legal proceeding. Urge an entity (whether it is the county children and youth agency, the Department of Public Welfare or the courts themselves) to provide training to the judges and judicial staff on the needs of children and the parents who are
involved in the judicial system.
“This is a very serious issue, especially in a city like Philadelphia,” said Mayor Michael Nutter. “The first time I visited the prisons, I asked the inmates how many of them had children and about 75 percent of them raised their hands. This last December 31st, I asked the inmates at the county jail how many of them had children and 90 percent of them raised their hands. My next question was who was raising their children? Mayor Wilson Goode, who works with these children through AMACHI, has visited all 26 of our state facilities and he told me of a grandfather, a father and a son who met each other for the first time in prison. That’s heartbreaking.”