The tragedy when parents are incarcerated

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Editor’s Note: Ashish Prashar, is a board member with the nonprofit group Just Leadership USA, which works to achieve racial and social justice. He also serves on the advisory council of the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice, a nonprofit seeking greater fairness across the criminal justice system. He tweets @Ash_Prashar. The views expressed in this article are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.


When I was 17, some friends and I got caught stealing clothing from a high-end department store in London. I was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of theft. It was my first offense, but the judge wasn’t feeling forgiving: I was sentenced to a year in prison.

That was two decades ago. Earlier this year, on the 20th anniversary of my release from prison, I was given the most monumental gift: the birth of my first child.

Ashish Prashar

Hearing that first cry when my son was born, cradling him in the delivery room and holding his tiny hand as he fell asleep in postpartum recovery made me deeply grateful he chose my wife and me.

He’s just shy of a year old now. Like his mom, he’s a precocious walker, keeping us on our feet as he toddles around the apartment more confidently each day. I’ve been able to see him transition from crawling to walking and all the other moments along the way, because I’m living in freedom.

But I can’t help but think about the people who aren’t able to experience such moments with their children because of our inhumane system of mass incarceration. My son’s birth has unlocked many new feelings about not only my own time in prison, but also the way parents and children across this country are callously separated by incarceration.

Admittedly, my view is a somewhat contrarian one to the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” stance espoused by some law-and-order hardliners. But I think that lawmakers — and society in general — should lean in when possible to making it much easier for children and incarcerated parents to remain in contact.

Families should not be torn apart as a result of a conviction. Of course our criminal justice system absolutely should focus on holding people accountable, but in a way that does not perpetuate harm. The very act of incarceration often inflicts more damage to more people than the crime itself. Even for people convicted of serious felonies, society is invested in them becoming better human beings — including being better parents.

There are examples where efforts to allow physical contact between incarcerated people and their children are being carried out. In fact, three states — Connecticut, California, New York — as well as Washington, DC, have programs that allow for extended visits between incarcerated people and their family members. We in the justice reform field understand the vital role that visitation can play for the mental health and emotional well-being of incarcerated people and how it increases the odds of success when that person is released.

Sadly, moves making it easier for inmates to connect with their loved ones are not being adopted everywhere. Last fall, Montana suspended visits for people in its prisons because of staffing shortages, and officials said those visits remain suspended until further notice. In Nashville, in-person visits were terminated during the Covid-19 outbreak and so far have not resumed.

I came to understand the profound loss caused by family separation during my time in prison as a teen. Trapped behind bars, I saw humiliation and beatings. I witnessed older prisoners set younger ones on each other. So-called correctional officers took food away, handcuffed young people, made racist remarks and verbally and physically assaulted us, trying to goad us into a reaction. I was even put in solitary confinement for a short time for my own protection. Prison wasn’t created to rehabilitate — very much the opposite.

I was extremely fortunate: Relatives were able to secure my release after four months. The time I spent incarcerated didn’t break me, but it did change me. I’ve spent much of my professional life in government and nonprofits, focused a good deal of that time on initiatives that help incarcerated people. And of those imprisoned people, incarcerated parents are front-of-mind for me.

The United States incarcerates more people than any other nation on the planet, according to the Equal Justice Initiative. And we keep them incarcerated for an unreasonably long time. More than half of inmates — 57% — serve sentences of 10 years or longer, according to the Council on Criminal Justice. Of people serving prison terms, one in seven is serving a life sentence. Those kinds of prolonged separations make any notion of being able to nurture soul-sustaining familial bonds a pipedream.

According to the US Justice Department, in 2016, 47% of men incarcerated in state or federal prisons and 58% of incarcerated women are parents to minor children. Most people in state prison are incarcerated 100 miles or more from home, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while inmates held in federal detention are imprisoned, on average, 500 miles from home.

Given these enormous distances, it seems highly unlikely that these people see their children with any regularity during the period of their incarceration. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that only 42% of parents in state prison who had of minor children received an in-person visit from their children since being admitted.

I don’t have any illusions that reunions between incarcerated people and their children are possible or even desirable in all of these cases. But every year, in the work that I do, I meet far too many young people who have been separated from their parents through the violence of incarceration, many of whom would love to reinstitute some sort of ties with them. Our country disproportionately criminalizes people for mistakes. And the penalty is compounded when they are demonized as bad parents and kept from their children.

It’s time we recognize that when we incarcerate parents, we inflict potentially irreparable damage on their families. The National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Department of Justice, has found that having an incarcerated parent has been linked to a host of negative outcomes in various areas including behavioral and mental health, homelessness, school performance and future interactions with the criminal justice system.

We need to find ways that would allow people to remain in the community and provide the resources to stop the cycle that fuels mass incarceration. And as profoundly as the parents suffer, the 1.25 million children left behind to cope with the pain of separation from their incarcerated parents also often suffer grievous emotional harm. Their individual stories of pain are a powerful testament to the urgent need for reform.

We need to challenge the laws and policies that criminalize parents — in particular, poor people and people of color. Policies that tear apart families and decrease the safety and well-being of our communities are a horrific and inhumane part of our present. We must ensure these policies are not a part of our children’s futures.