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The High Cost of Incarceration

While watching the NBC special, “Justice for All,” about life for the formerly incarcerated and prison reform, John Legend said, “when you’re locking someone up, you’re locking up their whole family too.”

If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve been responding to questions over the past few months. This will month will be a little different, as I’m going to write about something that’s personal for me.

I am not naïve. I know that there are times when, for safety (both for the individual and the community), individuals need to be incarcerated. Increasingly, I have begun to reflect on the cost to individuals, families, children and the community when someone is incarcerated. Some researchers say that we have almost 5 million children whose parents are incarcerated. According to some studies, many of these children don’t know where their parent are, they just feel abandoned or betrayed. Some children are bullied, and many report higher rates of anxiety and depression. And, this is not predictive, but there is a strong correlation between a parent’s incarceration and a child’s future involvement with the criminal justice system.

For children, having a parent incarcerated is an adverse childhood experience (an ACES). It’s a trauma. From my experience, drugs and unmet mental health needs are connected to why people get involved in the criminal justice system. Having a parent or a loved one with an addiction and unmet mental health need is also preventable/fixable traumas.

Individuals need consistency, safety and predictability for their mental health and wellness. When there are ruptures and disruptions, - the impact changes hearts, minds and bodies. These changes can also increase stress levels, resulting in physical problems, emotional problems and other coping problems.

We don’t think enough about the costs on families and communities resulting from incarceration. I currently have a cousin and an uncle who are incarcerated and there are great financial burdens on my family - it costs us to write them, visit them and ensure that their needs are meet. Of course, the emotional costs are also huge. My uncle is the only living male relatives on my mother's side of the family. We have a family filled with women, and we are currently “without protection. “ (Yes, we are strong, fearless and independent, but we do feel his absence).

So, what’s the solution? These aren’t my unique ideas, but I think it’s important to restate them here.

  • We need to rethink about when someone needs to be removed from the community and about the length of these sentences.

  • We need more support to address the root causes of incarceration: we need better trauma-informed mental health and substance use/abuse programs.

  • We need to make it easier for families to stay connected to each other. We need to do everything we can to preserve families and family relationships, such as initiatives to reduce the high cost of phone calls and to keep families closer together during a family member’s time away.

  • When communities are adversely impacted by higher rates of people being removed from these communities, we need to step in - we need to increase supports for children, wives/mothers/girlfriends and families.

  • We need to acknowledge the losses to the community, families, etc., and we need to reinvest in these communities to address the economic, social and cultural burdens that come when a love one is incarcerated.

  • And, most importantly, we need to make it easier for people to return home and provide support in repairing ruptures in relationships that might have resulted from a loved one’s incarceration. Not only are relationships within families disrupted but, when someone is incarcerated, their relationships with the community are also disrupted. Imagine how incredibly healing it could be to really allow people to come home/and to be accepted there.

  • Finally, we must be intentional about addressing the stigma that frequently impacts those who were left behind.

  • These are just my ideas....what else do you think would help create healing?

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