The United States has the world’s largest incarcerated population. Nebraska’s prisons capacity is among the highest in the nation.
For every person who enters a local jail, state penitentiary or federal prison, the ripple effect of that person’s absence stretches far beyond the facility’s walls. And possibly no population on the outside is more affected than children whose parents are sentenced to serve time behind bars.
As prison populations nationwide have increased, it’s worth taking a closer look how Nebraska handles its parents and their children, given that nearly two-thirds of the roughly 9,000 state inmates are identified as parents. An interim study resolution, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, is taking a needed look at this vulnerable yet important group.
Among the nine points explicitly enumerated in the resolution are examining policies on visitation and calls, locations where certain parents serve their sentences, reducing recidivism among parents and creating child-friendly programs, both within correctional institutions and programs for families.
The conversations in Pansing Brooks’ resolution, which picked up three conservative co-sponsors, must be had. A growing body of data highlights the thin line an ever-growing number of children must walk.
A Pew Center study in 2010 estimated that more than 2.7 million children — one in 28 — have at least one incarcerated parent. That figure, still cited today, came after a 2007 U.S. Department of Justice survey placed the figure at 1.7 million. It followed yet another 79 percent increase between 1991 and 2007.
A University of Pittsburgh summary of outcomes for children of incarcerated parents noted that the interactions in prisons and jails have critical impacts down the road.
Those whose visits to their parents aren’t paired with interventions or atmospheres to make a difficult place more inviting trended toward negative results. Conversely, increased child-parent contact and more child-friendly environments yielded better outcomes for both parties.
Another 2014 study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine found children with a parent in prison or jail were significantly more likely to suffer from poor physical and mental health. This is compounded by a body of evidence showing that the incarceration of a parent has significant, obvious negative impact on family’s socioeconomic status.
Official names for many jails and prisons stress their ultimate purpose of inmates atoning for crimes committed — corrections, reformatory, penitentiary. Nearly all who enter a prison one day leave it. They come out changed, but their responsibilities as a parent remains the same.
All the while, the vital job of parenting waits outside prison walls. Nebraska must seek the best outcomes to ensure parents serving time and their children have the best chance to succeed despite a difficult separation.
—Journal Star. October 17, 2017