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A Real Life Look at How Incarceration Impacts Parenting

prison sentence

There have been efforts in the last few years of the current administration to release people imprisoned for life for minor drug offenses. In recent times, more people are accepting that drug addiction is indeed a health crisis, despite the fact that drug addicts voluntarily enter the path that leads to their addiction. Irrespective of how they get here, many laws and policies are moving towards getting people clean and sober for the benefit of their children as well.

We see more empathy towards drug addicts.

Equally, people incarcerated for selling drugs for life too are deserving of second chances for the benefit of their children as well. This is true, especially when their crimes are non-violent and a life sentence is entirely too harsh a consequence for drug selling, many agree.

This excerpt from a column that senior White House official Valerie Jarrett penned in Medium provides a snapshot look into the life of one daughter who is missing the benefit of growing up with a father. Please Read:

In 1996, when Daryl Atkinson was 25 years old, he was sentenced to 10 years at a state prison for a first-time nonviolent drug offense. Daryl ended up serving 40 months due to good behavior, but for Daryl, those months were critical for building his relationship with his daughter — and he missed out on them completely.

“When I was sentenced, my daughter was just two years old. Where I was incarcerated, the setting where we would get to meet with visitors wasn’t at all conducive to building a parent-child relationship. The meeting room was cold and sterile, not at all fit for doing the things that fathers do with their babies, like playing with toys or reading to them.”

“And even when I was released, it took about a year for me to get back on my feet. I faced a number of consequences from my incarceration that set me back — including not being eligible for federal student aid. By the time I felt I had some stability, I had missed out on some key years in developing my relationship with my daughter.”

After being released, Daryl was determined to turn his life around. He obtained a degree in Political Science, and went on to obtain his law degree from the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Daryl now serves as the Second Chance Fellow at the Department of Justice, where he specializes on reentry reform issues, including policies that help facilitate the parent-child relationship of currently and formerly incarcerated parents.

“The reality is that a parent’s incarceration has an incredible impact on the life outcomes for their child. Not only are children of incarcerated parents affected by the day-to-day issues that come from being more likely to live in an disadvantaged community with less access to resources but there’s also the potential for juvenile justice and delinquency issues that come from lacking strong parental bonds.”

Today, Daryl is a father of two daughters, and he never forgets what his second chance means for his daughters.

“I now have a daughter who’s 4 years old. Being at home with her every day gives me a chance to appreciate the experiences that I missed out on while I was incarcerated with my first daughter. It grounds me to think of the profound impact that my incarceration experience must have had on her. Her dad just wasn’t around. I think about that every day.”

There are 2.2 million people behind bars in America today — and more than 5 million children have a parent who is currently incarcerated or has been incarcerated in the past.

Mass incarceration doesn’t impact just the people behind bars — it has consequences for both families and communities.

A parent with a criminal record can face a tough time securing a job, putting strain on a family’s ability to provide basic necessities to children. The stress of incarceration on a family can have further negative impacts on children — and some studies have shown that children of parents who have been incarcerated are more likely to enter the criminal justice system themselves.

President Obama knows that supporting individuals who have paid their debt to society is good for families and it’s good for our economy.

This is why President Obama has worked to reduce the barriers that people with criminal records face when they reintegrate into society. He’s announced new grants to help returning citizens take advantage of their second chance through education, job training, housing, legal help, and children’s services. He’s taken action to “ban the box” so that applicants with criminal records can have a shot at the majority of federal jobs.

Following President Obama’s lead are a number of employers, educators, and advocacy groups across the country that have stepped up to highlight challenges that incarcerated parents and their families face. For example, Google recently launched the #LoveLetters effort, an awareness campaign that highlights the impacts on children of incarcerated parents. There are also efforts founded and run by children of incarcerated individuals such as POPS the Club and ScholarChips aimed at providing peer-to-peer support and resources.

We support these efforts wholeheartedly.

Irrespective of where one falls on the political spectrum, not too many can fault efforts to re-connect children with their dads. The evidence about the impact of paternal absenteeism is in and the outcome grim. Let’s support active parenting from all angles and all sources, shall we?