Incarceration of Parents Leaves Lasting Impact on Children

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February 10, 2015 - 6:45am

African-Americans represent about 13 percent of the population and African-American men about 6 percent. Yet they make up nearly 50 percent of the total incarcerated population in the United States. Dr. Rose Brewer, professor of African-American and African studies at the University of Minnesota, calls those figures profoundly startling.

Brewer said there is a systemic problem and as such Americans should approach it this way:

“We tend to individualize behavior in this society, meaning that if you succeed, ‘You are motivated, you worked hard’,” Dr. Brewer said. “If you don’t, it isn’t necessarily outside of you, ‘it’s in you’ that this is the reason for not doing well.”

Dr. Rose Brewer is a professor of African-American & African Studies at the University of Minnesota. (Photo Courtesy American Sociological Association)

Dr. Brewer said tougher laws and guidelines for convicted criminals started in the 1980s in an attempt to help poor communities decrease crime. She called these policies a failure and said we are seeing now just what incarcerating people on a large scale do to families and communities.

“I think we feel a little bit more comfortable saying ‘they didn’t work hard’ or ‘they are not motivated,’ rather than saying let’s put the lenses on how we made decisions on certain groups and the consequences of that, even into 2015,” Dr. Brewer said. “For the economic and social chances of that group, we looked very carefully at that and found that to be the case.”

W. Bradford Wilcox is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. He said there are several contributing factors which play into the numbers of incarcerated African-Americans and deeply divided communities like Omaha.

“When you are looking at racial disparities in a place like Omaha, I think it’s important to look at the role racism plays, the role poverty plays, the role concentrated segregation plays and the role that family structure plays in helping to account for the divides between black and white kids and black and white adults,” Wilcox said.

Dr. Wilcox said there are high levels of poverty among African-Americans in the U.S. and if you grow up poor you are less likely to do well in school and more likely to run afoul of the law. He also said poverty is impartial of the racial divide in America.

“We see in many parts of the country an intense racial and class-based segregation where poverty is concentrated in black neighborhoods,” Dr. Wilcox said. ”What we know from tons of research is that people, kids in particular, take cues from their neighbors and their community.”

Dr. Brewer said over half of incarcerated African-American men with children, lived with their kids prior to being jailed. She said families are destabilized and taken apart when parents and guardians of children are incarcerated.

Andre Rash, 32, was born and raised in Omaha, growing up with his father incarcerated but Rash says he created his own future. (Photo Courtesy Andre Rash)

Andre Rash was born and raised in Omaha, graduating from Burke High School in 2000. When he was 14 years old, his father went to jail after being convicted on drug charges. He grew up without his father and was raised in a single-mother household.

“He has been gone quite a while now, 18 years,” Rash said. “So from the age of 14, 15 years old any type of communication with him has been while he was behind bars. To this day, I am not angry at him or with him for being the type of father he was or his actions, in making the decision to go to jail,” Rash said.

Rash said growing up it was normal for kids in his neighborhood to not have fathers around. He said many of his friends didn’t, so in that regard he didn’t feel like an outcast.

Rash now owns a collision repair body shop. He is also a father to three daughters, a role he holds in the highest regard.

“I don’t want to put my girls through the same thing I went through when not having a father,” Rash said. “I just took that negative and made it a positive. I know what it’s like not to have a father not come to a Christmas program or to be involved in anything you do in school. So I make sure I am always involved in my kid’s school activities.”

Dr. Wilcox said having an effective father in the home for children is immeasurable when it comes to molding kids.

“Dads bring a unique perspective to parenting and a unique approach to parenting that rebounds the benefit to their kids and their communities,” Dr. Wilcox said.

Rash said it’s easy to see how incarceration can have a negative impact on children.

“As I got older and became my own man, you realize how much you miss without having a father in your life,” Rash said. “There are a lot of things I had to learn on my own, and I’m pretty sure I learned the wrong way and I had to correct those mistakes as I made them.”

In Nebraska the numbers of prisoners have increased from 4,705 in 2013 to 5,026 in 2013, an increase of 6.8 percent. Nationally, the figures have dropped from 1-in-100 people being incarcerated in 2006 to 1-in-110 in 2013. So there is certainly a push for change, but Dr. Brewer doesn’t know if it is enough.

“There is a slight movement I believe towards moving away from jailing and incarcerating folks, especially with minor crimes,” Dr. Brewer said. “We are a long way from resolving that so it remains to be seen the final direction this is going to move in.”

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