In debates about America's swelling prison system, a shadow population often remains unmentioned: the children of the convicted. But in a new book, "All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated," journalist and activist Nell Bernstein lifts the cloak of invisibility from prisoners' families -- and challenges the criminal justice system to stop punishing kids for their parents' crimes.
In the book, readers are introduced to Susana, 15, who has hugged her father only once but faithfully sends Father's Day cards inscribed with Bible verses to his cell at San Quentin. Seven-year-old Anthony has been set adrift in the foster care system since his mother had her parental rights terminated after shoplifting a Bic lighter from a grocery store. And there's Carl Metz, whose mother is serving three life terms for dealing cocaine, and who dreams of rapping on BET, wearing a "Free Danielle Metz" T-shirt.
Meticulously reported and sensitively written, Bernstein's book draws upon a decade of research and astounding personal interviews. Rather than abstracting the issue, she lets her child narrators lead readers through each stage of the criminal justice system -- beginning with the piercing shock of a parent's arrest and the arbitrary punishment of sentencing, through the humiliation of searches in sterile prison visiting rooms, into the maze-like mess of foster care. Kids and parents may dream of reunification, but Bernstein shows readers how often the cruelties of incarceration continue even after a parent is released.
Despite these grim realities, Bernstein -- a former Soros fellow who writes occasionally for Salon and is a Mother Jones contributor -- remains hopeful that change is coming. She scours the country in search of advocates who are working to improve the prison system's treatment of families and highlights programs that model a more humane approach to crime and punishment. She entreats readers to understand that it is not prisons themselves that dissolve family bonds -- but the application of justice without empathy. "We are able to lock people up ... only so long as we see them as useless," Bernstein writes. "But the majority of prisoners are mothers and fathers: they are needed in the most fundamental way."
Bernstein spoke with Salon by phone from her California home about the unbreakable bonds between children and parents, how Hurricane Katrina has devastated already-fragmented families, and why she believes prison is the modern-day equivalent of slavery.
Your book is about prison, but it touches on so many other issues -- drug sentencing reform, criminal justice, foster care, child welfare, and family rights.
Even though I've been working on this topic directly for about five years, the idea behind the book really began to grow five years before that -- and it didn't come out of an interest in criminal justice per se, but rather an interest in family. I spent almost a decade editing a youth newspaper -- and that was mostly in the 1990s, which of course was the "family-values" decade. If you think back to the 1992 Republican convention with Dan Quayle, you remember there was a growing public rhetoric around family values -- and the idea was that a lack of those values was attacking the American culture. At the same time, I was working in an office full of young people who were really fighting tooth and nail for family but were facing really intense pressures that made it difficult to maintain those connections. It was clearly not that they didn't value them.
It was just one of those cultural moments when the gap between rhetoric and reality got a little too big to stomach. And then right in the middle of that work, while I was doing some reporting on foster care, I met this kid named Ricky. Now, I thought I was interviewing him about foster care, so I asked how he came to be in the system and he told me the story -- which is in the book -- about being 9 years old, at home with his mother and his baby brother, when the police came and took away his mother and just left him there. Ricky spent two weeks taking care of a baby in an empty apartment before someone noticed. And hearing that made me realize how much of a role the criminal justice system was playing in the forcible disruption of families and also how completely invisible these kids were.
Really the statistics are staggering. In the book you say one in 33 of all American kids and one in eight African-American kids currently have a parent behind bars. How can they still be invisible?
The other number that really stands out for me is that one in 10 kids has a parent that is either in jail, on probation, or on parole. So if you think about the number of kids who have had or will have this experience, it is almost inconceivable.
How can they still be invisible? Well, that's something I've been struggling with. There was a story I saw just a few weeks ago in Police Chief Magazine...
Wait, did you say "Police Chief"?
Yeah, I know, people have asked me if I subscribe, but no, that's just the kind of thing people send you when you write about this stuff. But anyway, the article looked at the issue of how to deal with children at the time of arrest from a liability perspective, and ran through some cases that had made their way to the courts.
There was one case I knew about that really set the precedent for police liability, in which a man was pulled over for speeding and then left his three nephews alone in the car by the side of the freeway. And in that instance the boys wandered out onto the freeway, so the courts did find police liability. But there was another case that I hadn't known about where police pulled a woman over because her 2-year-old wasn't in a car seat and she had a couple of older kids in the car too. Then, when police ran her license they found that she was driving with a suspended license, so they arrested her -- but left the three kids, including the 2-year-old, behind.
So I read that, and I just sat there and tried to figure out how 10 minutes ago the police officers had cared enough about the welfare of that 2-year-old to pull his mother over because she needed to have him in a car seat -- but then the moment she crossed over and was arrested and became an "offender," suddenly her child didn't need or deserve even the most basic protections. So that's how these kids stay invisible.
But why do we treat them this way? In a way that's one of the central mysteries I explore in the book, and I haven't quite answered it yet. But I think that it comes down to this idea of American individualism, and our obsession with individual responsibility and just desserts and that retributive model of criminal justice, and the lack of imagination that makes us think the only way that we can deal with everything from writing a bad check to carrying a bag of marijuana is to pull people out of their communities and isolate them. That's a really profound mind-set and it's a mind-set that doesn't allow for the reality that people are connected to one another, and are part of families and communities that are disrupted when we use isolation as our main mechanism of correction.
In fact, most of the children you spoke with seemed to feel a lot of anger and cynicism about justice and authority after watching their parents get locked up.
That's true, and I think one reason we have to keep these kids invisible is because if we really saw them, we'd have to change how we do business in a pretty profound way. Obviously that's what I would like to see happen, but there's a lot invested in doing things the way we do now.
You point out the irony that it's kids who are so often used as a rhetorical tool in the war on drugs and crime -- as in "we need to protect kids" from these dangerous people. To be fair, isn't it really the state's intention to remove these kids from a potentially harmful parenting situation?
You know, when I do interviews and talk about these things on the radio, there are a few questions I always hear. The first is, isn't this all really the parents' fault? The second is, wouldn't these kids be better off without these kinds of parents? Now, of those questions, the least relevant to me is "Isn't it the parents' fault?" Because, you know, if I were to turn my back and my son were to wander off a cliff, I'd want someone to catch him, whether or not it was irresponsible of me to let him play so near the edge. But the second question -- "aren't they better off?" -- I think that really is what people think, but it desperately needs to be addressed. I think there are a few things that allow people to think like that, for one, not understanding that when you take a child's parent away there's not some sort of perfect other adoptive home out there waiting for him. There's 20 or 30 foster homes or an impoverished grandmother or being passed from hand to hand. It's not as if we're actually offering them something that will make them better off. But the main thing that I've learned from talking to so many kids, which should be so obvious, is that these are the parents they've got. These are the parents they love. And their connections to those parents are exactly as real and as deep as my connection to my kids. And I know that should go without saying, but it never does.
You point out how isolation and incarceration cause the "reciprocal relationships" that hold people together to become eroded, until whole communities face crises. That made me think about Katrina, when you heard so many people asking, "Why aren't these people leaving New Orleans? Why don't they go stay with family somewhere else?" without understanding that they were talking about individuals stuck in poverty, literally stripped of family resources or any kind of community safety net to fall back on.
Are you reading my mind? Really, it's so interesting that you should raise that point, because two of the families in the book were affected by Katrina, and in exactly the way you describe. Dorothy Gaines, a woman I write about from Mobile, Ala., was arrested in the mid-'90s on extremely shaky conspiracy charges and as a result got clemency six years later and came home to her kids. She had previously worked as a nurse's technician but after her release she wasn't able to go back to that field because of the felony restrictions -- so she wasn't able to find work, she wasn't able to live in public housing, she wasn't able to get any kind of support. When Katrina hit, she was living with three children and four grandchildren in her oldest daughter's two-bedroom apartment. I spoke to her not long after, and she told me about sitting on her daughter's porch and watching, as she put it, the big long cars leave the city. She was among those who didn't have gas to put in a car. And when their apartment flooded, they just sat there. And obviously Dorothy wasn't the only one, but this was a family that prior to her incarceration had resources. They didn't have a big, long car, but she worked and she provided for her kids, and she would have been able to put gas in the car and get out of the city. Her incarceration drained her family of those resources, and it was simply made very visible post-Katrina
The other family is the Metz family, many of whom actually live in New Orleans. Danielle Metz, as you read in the book, is serving triple life for being involved in her husband's cocaine business. While she has been away, her children have been cared for by grandparents and her sister Adrian -- a woman who in addition to caring for her sister's daughter also took in four grandchildren in the wake of her own daughter's murder. Adrian always talks about how her greatest prayer is that God will release Danielle so that she would be able to help her in caring for all these children, including her grandchildren.
Adrian lives in Stockton, Calif., but when Katrina hit she happened to be in New Orleans visiting some of the extended family. So she wound up at the Astrodome and then after the storm passed, she brought her two brothers and their families, as well as her 67-year-old mother, back to California. On top of that, Adrian's church in Stockton chartered three buses and drove 150 more people to California. So here's Adrian -- whose life has already been turned upside down by her sister's incarceration -- and is now trying to reconstitute her entire family, again drained of resources. I actually got a letter from Danielle where she said exactly what you're saying -- that it's hard to have your family need you and not be able to do anything for them. That idea of reciprocity is the basis of family life.
So, it's just not working, and no one has really faced that. The state may have gotten Danielle Metz off the street, but New Orleans is still one of the most violent, corrupt, drug-plagued cities in the nation. And recent events don't indicate that law and order began to reign once they began giving people whose husbands sold drugs triple life sentences.
You cite a half-dozen programs that have proven to be viable alternatives to incarceration -- but even D.A. Joe Hines, who runs the very successful Drug Treatment Alternatives to Prison program in Brooklyn, N.Y., is adamant about not being thought of as a "finky liberal." Do you think that need to be seen as "tough on crime" is part of the problem?
Definitely, and what's really interesting is that every state in the nation does have several model programs that work -- they lower crime, they lower recidivism, they help people get over drug problems. And states are rightly always very proud of these programs -- but they are still always the exception. And I haven't figured out why we create special funding streams that last three years for the programs that actually work, while the pot is bottomless for the system we know doesn't work. You know the recidivism rate in California is something like 80 percent, but prisons are still the untouchable item in the budget.
What do you think about the fact that if reform does come, it will likely be because overcrowded prisons cause fiscal strain?
You know, we'll be lucky to even get that reform. A couple of years ago when the states were facing these intense budget crises there were a lot of small but significant activities that were budget-driven. A few states rolled back their mandatory sentencing laws, and a number of states started doing early release and things like that. But just last week, the government's latest round of prison numbers came out, and the population is up, again, and the rate of incarceration for women is growing at double the rate of men.
That's a statistic you hear a lot about these days. Why do you think that women -- many of whom are mothers -- are ending up behind bars in such large numbers?
There's pretty good evidence that it's not because there's this unprecedented rash of violence among women. It's because of the drug laws -- it's really just that simple.
But aren't far fewer women major players in the drug world?
Yes, but that fact also means they have little information to trade -- which under mandatory sentencing is the only way to get your sentence reduced. In fairness, they are still the smaller part of the prison population, but they are nonetheless the fastest-growing and least violent.
And because that rate is rising, and has been now for a few years, what you're seeing now is that neighborhoods that were first drained of fathers over a period of decades are now being drained of mothers. So, people are still talking about single-parent families without recognizing that there are growing numbers of kids growing up in no-parent families.
We can't really talk about this issue without looking at the fact that minority children are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system; something like half of all parents in prison are black and another quarter are Hispanic. There is one passage in the book where you make a comparison between the current dissolution of families through incarceration and the dismantling of families during slavery.
Well, it is an idea that is complicated and controversial. There is a whole set of activists who describe prison as the new slavery and I think it's a complex analysis. But when you look at it from a child's perspective, the parallels really jump out at you.
I used that passage that you are referring to, from Peggy Cooper Davis, because I thought it was important to note that the Abolitionist movement didn't just talk about slavery as a violation of personal autonomy but also as a denial of family bonds. And in fact, that was one of the most convincing arguments that the Abolitionists made and that ultimately led to the end of slavery. In the book, I quote one Abolitionist who wrote, "Pro-slavery men and women! For one moment only, in imagination, stand surrounded by your loved ones, and behold them, one by one torn from your grasp, or you rudely and forcibly carried from them -- how think you would you bear it?"
Because when I read that, I felt like I could have, except for some of the archaic language, been listening to the description of the experience of a kid who'd seen his mom arrested over and over. To him, the fact that she did something to make it happen is not the central fact.
But aren't there always going to be prisons, and always going to be some people who really do deserve to be in them, even if they might be parents?
Well that's really the big issue. And we can look at it from two parallel tracks. At the very least, we need to not leave kids alone in empty apartments. We need to not break down doors if we don't have to if there are kids present. It would be nice to ask a mom to step outside before we handcuff her, so her kids don't have to see that. There are a whole range of things that could be done to make things better for kids when a parent is arrested. We need to have a more humane visiting environment, more supports for poor elderly grandparents.
But I think the danger is that we will stop with that. And I think the conversation so far -- to the degree that it's being had at all -- has ended there. How can we make things better when a parent is incarcerated, with the assumption that that's inevitable? But I'd like to see us start to look at sentencing through the kids' eyes. So that would mean every time we remove somebody from her family, we stop to look at what the problem is we're trying to correct. Is this the only option? Or is there another option that would keep us "safe" -- because public safety is always the counterweight -- perhaps by solving her addiction or tendency to write bad checks, and still allow her children to have a parent. I think that if we look at sentencing through that lens, my guess is that the prison population would drop by half.
Because so many people are incarcerated for nonviolent, drug-related crimes?
Well, there is that. But it's also because prison is meant to rehabilitate -- and there are people who commit violent acts but could be rehabilitated and won't do it anymore. There are people in prison who have been there 20, 30, 40 years and are never going to get out and are going to need hundreds of thousand of dollars in geriatric care. So, I want to be careful -- I don't think we need to leave the people who have committed violent crime out.
Well, it seems like that's where you may lose a lot of support. Because there is a big gap in most people's minds between drug addicts and murderers and rapists.
Yes. But one thing that one of the women I write about in the book, Elizabeth Gaines, really has helped me understand is that if you're a kid, your needs and what you deserve don't vary based upon whether your parent is a nonviolent or violent offender.
You know, I think even I was overly invested in that distinction to begin with. I think that when there is a public safety reason for intervening, we need to make sure that intervention makes the person less violent rather than more. That's again, the terrible irony of prison -- some people don't get out, but many people commit violent acts, go to prison, are immersed in a violent culture, given no help and no treatment, and come out more violent. So we're still not safer.
You resist the idea of an intergenerational "cycle of crime." But still you recognize that an incredible number of children who have parents in prison eventually wind up in prison themselves. How do you explain that conflict?
Well, I used to cite a number that you'd see everywhere -- it's even been in Senate testimony -- which was that a kid whose parent has been incarcerated was six times more likely than other children to wind up behind bars himself. And finally Denise Johnston, who runs the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents in Pasadena, Calif., sat me down and explained to me that if that number were accurate, there would be more people incarcerated than our population. The math just didn't work.
But that number is still everywhere, and it became the central argument for helping the kids -- like "help these kids now or in 10 years they'll hit you over the head and steal your purse" -- when often that just contributes to the stigma and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and is ultimately not fair because although many kids go on to get in trouble, many, many don't. On the other hand, if you go into juvenile hall and ask a group of young men or women how many of them have experienced the incarceration of a parent, most of the hands will go up.
There is just no denying that reality. I think, though, that the assumption is that that is because their parents are criminals and teach them criminality, which may be part of it -- but again, I think that we have to look at whether the trauma of our intervention might be making it more or less likely that that cycle is going to be perpetuated.
One young man that I spoke with had a mother who was in and out of prison his whole life, and then eventually so was he. And I remember him saying, "The system, her, they made me who I am." Like in his head, his mother's addiction and criminality and the system's response to it were the same thing. They were both pressures that lead him to being addicted and locked up himself.
As a culture we have already done battle over women's rights and gays' rights and minorities' rights -- why do you think the concept of "children's rights" has been so difficult to get our heads around?
You know, I think we're almost radically unable to see things through kids' eyes. Even you and I are having that problem -- we keep drifting back to the adults, and the question of what the adults deserve. I did a radio talk show the other day, and the host asked, "But aren't there some people who just don't deserve to be parents?" And my immediate thought was maybe, but there aren't any kids who don't deserve to have parents.
And it's just very hard for institutions, whether it's criminal justice or child welfare, to see things through kids' eyes. And one of our central fallacies, which I'm becoming more aware of now that I have my own kids, is that if we don't tell kids, they won't know. Like if we don't talk to kids about what is happening, it won't affect them, or we shouldn't take them to visit parents because prison is a scary place.
You asked me at the beginning why these children were invisible, but really, in some ways, aren't all kids? I think we live in this kind of crazy culture where we talk about them all the time but mostly they're a rhetorical device. That's probably just a natural extension of being an adult, but that's why in the book, while I didn't talk to little kids for obvious reasons, I did talk to a lot of people who had been little kids when this happened to them -- and it was just so illuminating for me to see it through their eyes and to see how very much they saw.