Introduction: Incarcerated Parents, Children, and Family Ties
In a secondary analysis of the 1992 National Adult Literacy Assessment (NALS) involving 1147 U.S. prisoners, Haigler, Harlow, O'Connor and Campbell (1994) found that about half of the adult prisoner sample lacked a high school diploma or GED. Further, about a third of federal, state and local prisoners performed at the lowest of five levels on a series of prose and document exercises included in the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS). (An updated assessment, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, was administered to U.S. prisoners in 2004; a report on this population's literacy trends is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2006. Individuals performing at NALS level one cannot reliably perform tasks such as comparing and contrasting two pieces of information from a simple text and may be at a disadvantage when competing for better paying jobs in today's workplace (Comings, Parrella, & Soricone, 1999). Snow and Strucker (2000) estimated that as many as 40% of those performing at the lowest NALS literacy level may be functioning at or below the third grade level.
Due largely to tougher sentencing laws, the United States now incarcerates at 5-8 times the rate of developed countries in Western Europe and Canada, and, since 1998, has surpassed the incarceration rate of the Soviet Union (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006; Mauer, 2003). Since 1980, the U.S. prison population has increased by 334 percent; over 2.1 million people are currently being held in jails or prisons (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006).
The majority of these adult prisoners are parents. The number of incarcerated women is expanding more rapidly than that of male incarcerates. In 2003, U.S. Federal and State prisons confined over 100,000 adult women (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2006). The Child Welfare League (CWL) (2004) estimated that three-fourths of all female prisoners were mothers. Seventy-two percent of these mothers were the primary caretakers of their children prior to arrest; further, two-thirds of the moms had children under the age of 16. In comparison, 55 percent of male prisoners were fathers with children under age 18; 44 percent of these fathers lived in the home of at least one of their children at the time of arrest.
Data about the children of these prisoners are sketchy. The CWL (2004) estimated that two million or more children in the United States had lost one or both parents to prison. CWL also found that these children were six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system than other children and that seven percent of all African American children could be expected to be imprisoned some time in their lives if the current rates of incarceration continue. The Human Rights Watch (2002) found that African American children were over eight times more likely to do time than Caucasian children, and Latino/a children were three times more likely; these ratios were much higher in some states.
Parke & Clarke-Stewart (2001) found that children separated from their parents as a result of incarceration experienced higher rates of anxiety disorders, withdrawal, depression, guilt, shame, anger, aggression, school phobias, and poor academic performance. Although these problems often started before the mother or father was arrested, parental removal tended to exacerbate them. Travis, Solomon and Waul (2001) reported that most children of prisoners did not get to visit their parents in prison, had greater exposure to poverty, and had experienced more parental abuse than other children. They also found that 55% of adjudicated youth had a parent in prison, which suggests a grim, intergenerational cycle of involvement with the criminal justice system, especially among poor and minority families.
Although contact between prisoners and their children is challenged by some proponents of tough sentencing for criminals, others emphasize the cost of separation in terms of (a) the risks to successful reintegration after prison (Covington, 2001; Hairston, 2001); (b) harm to children (Bernstein, 2005; Gadsden, Davis, Jacobs, Edwards, LaPoint, Muth, et al., 2005); (c) and corrosive effects on the community (Rose & Clear, 2001). Gonnerman (2004) described the devastating impact of a mother's incarceration on her mother, siblings, and four children. One son -- who was a preschooler when his mother was arrested and was currently in prison himself -- wrote to his mother regularly for day-to-day guidance, after more than ten years of separation. Emani Davis, who grew up visiting her father in prison, noted, "Many people think we are doing a service to children, when a parent is doing life, in having them sever contact. But as children, we understand who we are as human beings by understanding who our parents are" (Bernstein, 2005, p. 95). Gadsden et al. (2005) noted there is still much we do not know about the impact of the loss of parental contact and care on children. Further, it is not always clear if and when it is in the best interest of the children to reunite them with a parent who abused them in the past.
When parents are incarcerated, literacy practices such as reading and writing letters are often the most important ways they remain connected to their children, even when the parent has limited literacy ability (Muth, 2004). Thus, prison-based family literacy programs 1 may provide one important way to support parents' efforts to build and maintain close ties with their children and, at the same time, support literacy learning (for the parent) and greater school success (for the child). This literature review is an attempt to find out what is known about intergenerational literacy programs as they relate to families that have loved ones - especially, but not exclusively, parents -- in prison.
1 I use the term 'prison-based family literacy programs' to refer to any programs that support incarcerated parents through the use of family literacy approaches. Sometimes these programs include 'outside' components that support the children as well.