A version of this post originally appeared in the summer 2019 edition of the American Federation of Teachers’ American Educator.
As a high school teacher in Baltimore in the early 2000s, I knew the US incarceration rate was spectacularly high and that some of my students’ parents and family members were incarcerated. But I didn’t fully appreciate how the unequal distribution of incarceration was reshaping my students’ communities and day-to-day lives.
When I left the classroom to become a researcher in 2005, the field was only beginning to document the extent to which incarcerating unprecedented numbers of people affected the families and communities left behind.
How family members’ incarceration affects kids
Since then, research has made clear that having an incarcerated parent worsens children’s outcomes, independent of other challenges that may have existed in their lives beforehand. Here are a few insights that teachers may find useful.
When a mother is incarcerated
More than 5 million US children have had a parent in prison or jail at some point. Although having an incarcerated father is a more common experience, having an incarcerated mother is especially likely to disrupt children’s everyday lives. Among parents in prison who have minor children, mothers are more likely than fathers to have been living with their children and to have been their children’s primary caregiver at the time of their arrest.
Although most children with incarcerated fathers live with their mothers, children with incarcerated mothers have more varied living arrangements. Grandparents provide care most often, but some kids live with other relatives or friends or in foster care.
Incarcerated women are also especially likely to cycle in and out of jail quickly, meaning children may find even a mother’s return home stressful as caregiving arrangements are renegotiated.
When it’s hard to stay in touch
Maintaining contact is associated with positive outcomes for children and their incarcerated parents, but it’s not easy. Correctional facilities are often located far from home, and visitation protocols can be intrusive and traumatic. The costs and logistics of travel and phone calls can also make staying in touch difficult.
When another relative or friend is incarcerated
In perhaps the most powerful exchange I had with a student while teaching, a quiet, brilliant young man who commanded universal respect from his peers stopped by my classroom after school one day and sat down at a desk. In tears, he shared that his older brother had recently been incarcerated.
His sadness was palpable. As he was grieving the loss of his brother—with whom he had shared a room and his daily life—his family was facing new financial challenges brought on by his brother’s absence.
Research has focused on parental incarceration for good reason, but children whose parents are not incarcerated may have brothers, cousins, uncles, or other relatives who are. They may know people who are not in jail or prison but who are on probation or parole or facing new charges.
For middle- and high-school boys in particular, frequent interactions with police and firsthand knowledge of men in their families and communities who have faced legal troubles can cast a shadow over their long-term plans as they enter adolescence.
How can teachers help?
Beyond conveying my care and concern for my student’s well-being, what could or should I have done to support him and his family?
In addition to becoming familiar with the statistics on incarceration, teachers and other school staff members can develop strategies to better meet the needs of students with incarcerated family members, tailored to the local context.
In communities where incarceration is relatively rare, teachers and staff should prioritize knowledge and sensitivity about the issue. In these settings, teachers should educate all students on the prevalence of incarceration and what it means for families and communities. Prohibiting jokes about prison and taking care to avoid language and examples that stigmatize are also important.
In communities where incarceration is common, it could be helpful to spearhead schoolwide efforts to meet the needs of children with incarcerated loved ones.
Staff could offer resources or clubs targeted toward students who have been affected by incarceration, including support groups, counseling, and extracurricular activities providing opportunities to process experiences through poetry, writing, arts, and journaling. Framing these efforts broadly—as suitable for anyone who has an incarcerated loved one or worries about this possibility—may allow for greater participation and connection among students.
Staff could also connect with community programs and local service providers serving families affected by incarceration to refer students and families for additional support.
In all schools, it’s important to recognize that many parents are eager to be involved in their children’s lives both while they are incarcerated and once they are released. Staff should do what they can to facilitate these connections and meet parents where they are, while respecting current caregivers’ wishes.
Staff in leadership positions could explore innovative ways to include incarcerated parents in education, such as facilitating parent-teacher conferences by phone or video.
Ideally, no student would be separated from their loved ones. For students experiencing the incarceration of a parent or other family member, having access to adults they trust at school, especially those who share their experiences and can relate to them on a personal level, could help.
But with millions of students and families touched by prison, and with teachers in many communities less likely than their students to have experienced parental incarceration firsthand, there are still steps teachers and staff can take to provide the supportive, inclusive school communities children with incarcerated loved ones need.