The United States has the largest prison population in the world and the highest incarceration rate. While many criminologists, academics, and public policy experts are grappling with the questions surrounding prison reform inherent in these statistics, Christopher Wildeman, Policy Analysis and Management, is tackling the situation from another angle. Among other things, Wildeman studies what happens to children when a parent is incarcerated.
As a demographer, Wildeman analyzes large national data sets and uses methods that allow him to estimate the percentage of people who will experience a given event in their lifetime. “The primary goal of the research I’ve done on incarceration has been to show how important the consequences of mass incarceration are for families, especially children,” Wildeman says. “I then used a lot of big, longitudinal data sets to establish the effect of parental incarceration.”
The Repercussions of Mass Incarceration for Families and Children
Wildeman joined with Sara Wakefield of Rutgers University–Newark to study these effects. The researchers found that increases in incarceration have increased racial disparities in child wellbeing. When looking at comparisons between white and African American children, they discovered that the difference between the two groups in the incidence of behavioral problems increased from 10 percent to 45 percent, depending on the behavioral problem. Similarly, the risk of African American children becoming homeless compared to white children becoming homeless increased by a rate of 30 percent to 65 percent, while the racial disparity in infant mortality increased significantly. These changes reflect the fact that the majority of the increase in prison populations over the past 30 years has fallen on non-white males, especially African Americans, and that many of these prisoners are fathers.
“When we think of the implications of mass imprisonment for society, we tend to think that decreasing the incarceration rate will dramatically decrease or even end any such consequences,” Wildeman says. To the contrary, he and Wakefield argue that the consequences will be long lasting. “In a lot of ways we haven’t even begun to see a glimmer of the consequences of mass imprisonment for inequality because we will really see effects when these children come of age and struggle disproportionately as a result of experiencing the trauma of having a father incarcerated.”
When a Mother Is Incarcerated
Wildeman and Wakefield’s findings have been controversial in a number of ways. One of the most significant is the conclusion that, contrary to popular belief, maternal incarceration doesn’t appear to have consistent consequences for child wellbeing. Wildeman researched this further with Kristin Turney of the University of California, Irvine. Wildeman and Turney looked at 21 child behavioral outcomes ranging from internalizing behavioral problems to physical aggression. They found that even though the children of incarcerated mothers do very poorly compared to other children, very little of that is attributable to the mother’s incarceration. Instead they attribute it to pre-existing disadvantages the child and mother were exposed to in the household.
“It violates many of our assumptions about the American Dream to have so many children have such incredibly poor life chances,” Wildeman says.
“It’s a complicated finding,” Wildeman says. “Most women who experience incarceration are so disadvantaged in a host of domains prior to incarceration, we think we’re picking up on the impact of this on the children. It’s not that children do not experience trauma when they are removed from their mother, but rather that being moved into households with more stability and more resources can actually be a positive experience for them.” Two-thirds of the children end up living with another member of the extended family once their mothers are incarcerated, so they are still part of a broader kin network, Wildeman explains.
Implications for Public Policy
What this means for public policy is that society needs to focus on helping the most disadvantaged families before the parents, and especially the mother, reach the point where they might be incarcerated, Wildeman argues. “These children were still doing very poorly on average before their mothers went to prison,” he says, “so the point of intervention needs to come much earlier. We need to do a much better job in investing heavily in mothers who are experiencing severe disadvantage.”
Wildeman has contributed to the current debates regarding prison reform through numerous publications and talks, as well as by giving a congressional briefing on the consequences of mass incarceration to prisoners’ families in 2014. In 2013, he presented a talk at the White House about parental incarceration and its impact on children.
“There’s a lot of interest in criminal justice reform, and I do think the side of the story that focuses on the consequences of mass incarceration on families and children has helped move that discussion,” says Wildeman. He sees the study of severely marginalized children as being important for society overall for a variety of reasons.
“It violates many of our assumptions about the American Dream to have so many children have such incredibly poor life chances,” he says. “My work shows just how common some of these traumatic childhood events are and forces us as a society to face the situation. These events not only have negative effects on individual children, but they are also distributed very unequally by race and class. Because of this, an event like the incarceration of a parent is highly important not only for contemporary inequality but also for future inequality.”