Parenting and the Prison Industrial Complex
by David J. Leonard | special to NewBlackMan
Happy father’s day to all the fathers and grandfathers, but especially to those in Attica, San Quentin, Angola, and countless other prisons throughout the United States. For many, this is a day of celebration, of happiness and reflection. It is a day where kids give their dads homemade gifts and extra-special hugs. While everyday as a parent brings smiles and laughter, it is day where it is hard not to feel special as a dad. Yet, it should also be a day of reflection, where we as a society think about those who are unable to celebrate as a family. I am speaking about those among us who as Angela Davis laments have disappeared from the public imagination: incarcerated fathers.
According to a report entitled “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” in 2007 America was home to 1.7 million children (under 18) whose parent was being held in state or federal prison – that is 2.3 percent of American children will likely be celebrating father’s day away from dad. Despite hegemonic clamoring about family values, the prison industrial complex continues to ravage American families. Since 1991, the number of children with a father in prison has increased from 881,500 to 1.5 million in 2007. Over this same time period, children of incarcerated mothers increased from 63,900 to 147,400. Roughly half of these children are younger than 9, with 32 percent being between the ages of 10 and 14.
The problem is even more pronounced when looking at Black and Latino fathers. The numbers are startling: 1 in 15 black children lives away from their parent because of incarceration. For Latinos that number is 1 in 41, compared to 1 in 110 for white children. For incarcerated African Americans (1 in 3 black men are currently in prison, jail, on probation or parole), father’s day isn’t simply a day of disconnect from their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, but one that highlights their separation from their own fathers and entire family.
The consequences of America’s war on drugs (a war principally waged against black and brown America), of America’s “New Jim Crow” (see Michelle Alexander’s work), are evident on this day. Too many fathers, particularly black and Latino fathers, will celebrate alone, away from their sons and daughters. Writing in response to the widespread debate about the state of black fatherhood, Michelle Alexander makes clear the links between the new Jim Crow and “missing black fathers” in America. “Here’s a hint for all those still scratching their heads about those missing black fathers: Look in prison,” writes Alexander. She continues,
The mass incarceration of people of color through the War on Drugs is a big part of the reason that a black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The absence of black fathers from families across America is not simply a function of laziness, immaturity, or too much time watching Sports Center. Hundreds of thousands of black men have disappeared into prisons and jails, locked away for drug crimes that are largely ignored when committed by whites.
The systematic efforts to break-apart families, destroy communities, and separate fathers and mothers from their children is a direct result of the incarceration of drug users. According to Alexander, as of 2005, 4 in 5 drug arrests were for possession by individuals with no history of violence; in the 1990s alone, a period that saw a massive expansion of America’s war on drug users, 80 percent of those sent to prison were done so for marijuana possession. Yet, again we see how this is not a war on drugs or even illicit drug use, but use within the black community even though whites are far more likely to use illegal drugs. In a number of states, between 80 and 90 percent of all drug convictions have been of African Americans.
The impact of the war on drugs transcends father’s day. The systematic effort to dismantle families results in isolation and disconnection from community, support systems, and loved ones 365 days per year. It has resulted in a brain drain and systematic removal of grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters – entire communities. On average, children live 100 miles away from their incarcerated parents. A 2000 U.S. Department of Justice Report found that over half of America’s prisoners have not been visited by their children. An expansive and far-reaching criminal justice system touches so many of our lives.
The memory is still vivid. I was sitting in my office, preparing for parental leave of absence, when my phone rang. I could hear the sadness and fear in his voice. He had been convicted and was facing jail time. He was scared of losing his career, the life that he had worked so hard for up until that point, and a future of seeing his kids and grandkids grow up. Listening to my father’s voice was disheartening; the prospect of having to tell my children that grandpa wasn’t going to be there for our next visit was terrifying then for many months to come. Thankfully (and revealing the ways in which privilege operates within the criminal justice system), our family never had to see him go jail. I did, however, see the financial and personal difficulties that besiege so many families. Too many families are being split apart because of expanding and overzealous criminal justice system. Too many fathers and mothers have to tell their children that they have to go away. Too many children wake up each and every day with a parent locked up. Too many children have to go through a metal detector simply to deliver a father’s day wish today.
Last year, in “Imagine What Father’s Day Is Like for All the Dads and Sons in Prison,” Stephen H. Phelps offered the following father’s day reminder: “Let us take advantage of this Father’s Day to turn our well-wishing toward the ends for which our hearts are shaped; toward compassion for every son and every father who is in prison. And especially for black and brown men in prison.” Reminding us all that “these men are your sons. We are all their fathers,” Phelps calls upon us to collectively remember those who are unable to share this day with their children, who because of the troubling war on drugs are unable to be the fathers they would like to be. So, on the 40th anniversary of the racially-based and ineffective war on drugs, lets work toward the greatest present of all to not only fathers, but mothers, children, and our society at large: its end.