Voices from the inside out: Generations in jail

November 17, 2019

From the November-December 2019 issue of News & Letters

by Robert Taliaferro

One child’s first contact with the prison industrial complex came when he was ten years old. His father had been sentenced to 15 years in prison for aggravated assault, and every couple months, if they had the money, he and his mother would embark on a six-hour round trip to the prison, for a two-hour visit. When they got to the visiting area both would wait their turn to be pat searched by prison staff; then they would be herded into the visiting room along with hundreds of other visitors.

His father died while incarcerated after his involvement in a prison altercation. After his mother started using drugs, Child Protective Services removed him from the house and entered him into foster care. Eventually his mother was also jailed and he never saw her again.


Another 16-year-old had a different experience. His father went to prison and they stayed in close contact. Four years later they became cellmates when he was arrested for selling meth. He and his father write weekly letters to his other siblings, and his mother, all of whom are currently doing time for a variety of charges.

When the first child aged out of foster care, he did so without family or community support; he lacked a high school diploma or GED and had no money or assets. Within two hours he was on his way to be institutionalized again, following in his parents’ footsteps to prison, after walking into a grocery store and attempting to rob the cashier.

Both stories are examples of generational incarceration, the trend of familial imprisonment exacerbated by the confinement of one or more family members—especially parents—and the risks associated with these incarcerations on their children.

It is estimated that at least 1.5% of the population of the U.S. is incarcerated, while another 2% to 3% are under some other form of judicial sanction (parole or probation). It is also estimated that everyone in the country has at least one family member, friend, or acquaintance who is currently confined or under some sort of sanction which risks confinement.

Several million children have at least one parent, sibling, or other family member locked up in a state, federal, or county prison. The negative effects that a child might suffer when one or both of their parents are incarcerated can range from antisocial behavior to drug use or eventual incarceration, completing a cycle.


What’s frightening and disturbing is that, with such a high rate of incarceration, the alleged deterrent effect of imprisonment is nonexistent as the practice has become so mainstream that it appears to be more a rite of passage—especially in predominantly minority neighborhoods—than punishment. This seems to be especially true as more states waive younger juveniles to be tried as adults.

The end result is an exacerbation of the conditions that reinforce generational incarceration by ensuring that a younger group of prisoners spend more years in prison due to their tender ages when first incarcerated. This also means that the only social interactions they will be familiar with are those within prison walls.

We cannot accurately determine the number of children who are incarcerated as a direct result of a familial imprisonment anymore than we can determine how many children avoid incarceration after the confinement of a parent or other family member; no statistics are kept regarding such factors.

What we can determine, however, is the continued negative social impact that generational incarceration has on families and communities of color, especially when prison is being used less as a deterrent and more as a form of social, cultural, and economical control.


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