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Prison Destroys Families and Communities at Society’s Expense

(Photo: Berrett-Koehler Publishers)

Part of the Series

From Maya Schenwar, Truthout’s editor-in-chief, comes a hard-hitting and personal exploration of the enormous damage prison causes by severing millions of people from their families and communities – and the practical alternatives to incarceration that can create a safer, more just world. Get Locked Down, Locked Out before it is available elsewhere, only on Truthout! Click here to order.

Angela Y. Davis, prison abolitionist and author of Are Prisons Obsolete?, writes of Locked Down, Locked Out: “Maya Schenwar’s stories about prisoners, their families (including her own) and the thoroughly broken punishment system are rescued from any pessimism such narratives might inspire by the author’s brilliant juxtaposition of abolitionist imaginaries and radical political practices.”

In this excerpt from Locked Down, Locked Out, Schenwar delves into the damage wrought by prison on families, whole communities and society at large.

“I remember Judge McBryde saying ‘life,’ and Mom screaming over and over, ‘You can’t do that! You’re not God! You can’t take someone’s life.'”

—Billy Jackson, son of federal prisoner Joe Jackson

In the classic game Monopoly, the square called “Jail” sits ominously in a corner of the board. It’s a hole into which an unsuspecting player might fall after an unlucky roll of the die, or the drawing of a bad card, or simply stumbling upon a space marked “GO TO JAIL” while ambling along the path to riches or ruin. Once you’ve been “sentenced,” you’ve got just three possible routes out of your lonesome confinement: luck (rolling doubles), privilege (a Get Out of Jail Free card), or money.

But once in a while, players stuck inside the jail square have company. A pale green space clings to its outward-facing perimeter: a kind of dry, liminal moat between Jail and the edge of the board, inscribed with the words, “Just Visiting.” A player who happens upon Jail without being mandated there isn’t punished, but must merely spend a brief turn in the square, then get along on her way to other squares and other ventures, as if it had never happened.

However, in real life the vision of prison isn’t over for family members after they exit the visiting room, or hang up the phone, or put the letter back in its envelope. The fact of a loved one’s incarceration can take on a vacuous life of its own, rambling along invisibly, parallel to yours, inhabiting your sleep, your daydreams, and your minute-to-minute fears and imaginings. It’s sometimes difficult to whisk your mind back to your own reality and live visibly in the present while they are—as Wisconsin prisoner Miguel Segarra puts it in a letter—”stuck in the past.”

“Life Has Never Been the Same”

In talking to families of incarcerated people—and then trying to write about them—a hard-to-shake anxiety tugs at my brain and my fingertips: “What’s the ending ?” One author I spoke with when I began working on this book advised me, “Keep in mind that you’re writing a book for Americans, and Americans like a happy ending…. Or, at least, a hopeful ending.” But for a lot of people embroiled in the system, there’s no narrative arc, no reassurance of a liberated tomorrow. The very nature of incarceration ordains an impediment to forward movement—and that impediment is frustratingly vivid to family members on the outside, who witness the rest of the world rushing forward firsthand.

This dissonance bubbles to the surface when I speak with Yvonne, ex-wife of Joe Jackson, a pen pal of mine who is serving life for a meth distribution scheme undertaken to raise the $250,000 to pay for his son Cole’s life-saving bone marrow transplant. Joe divorced Yvonne three years into his imprisonment, telling her he wanted to set her free—but she still holds on. “They took the one person that had my back no matter what…. They took my best friend, and life has never been the same,” she tells me. “We live in our own prison out here, one that never ends.”

Joe has been in prison for more than eighteen years.

Joe’s daughter, April, describes to me how the saga began, during an early-morning breakfast when she was in ninth grade. It was still dark outside, the house hushed, and she had just seated herself at the table to eat a bowl of cereal. Then came a blaring loudspeaker-voice from outside the front door: “Come out with your hands up!” April yelled for Yvonne, who lay asleep in her room with baby Cole; he slept curled up next to her so she could tend to the protruding catheter in his heart when he woke in the night.

There was no slowing down the SWAT team: Two hundred officers swarmed everywhere in the house, in the woods outside, all down the road. They burst through the doors, searching futilely for April’s absent dad, tearing through papers and pulling Yvonne onto the porch. “One of them gripped me like a sack of potatoes and carried me to the driveway,” she says. “They told me to shut the dog up or they would shoot him…. From that day forward, my kids have had a fear that someone was watching them, and they all slept with me til they were older. It takes away all the security in your own home.”

In this small Texas town of fewer than 1,500 people, the scandal was big news. Rumors took flight immediately … and they never quite landed. “I learned we had elevators leading to an underground drug lab with an elaborate network of tunnels that went from our home down to my grandmother’s…. Trust me, I would have found that had it ever existed,” April recounts, recalling some of the worst items of gossip. “Apparently, there were also four dead bodies uncovered in our backyard.”

At the age of fourteen—for many of us, the height of caring what people think—April watched as long-standing friendships evaporated within days. Parents barred their kids from coming over to her house, and some even told their children not to talk to April or her middle brother, Billy. Yvonne got the cold eye, too—fellow parents wouldn’t sit next to her at the kids’ basketball games, and she was voted off the PTA in a closed-door meeting. She says, “There was rumors about me and the kids, always.”

The word “stigma” originally referred to a brand, a mark burned into human skin with a hot iron, commonly imprinted on the skin of enslaved people or “criminals.” The word hasn’t evolved much in the 400 or so years since its first usage, though the mark is now social instead of physical. And in the current era, at least when it comes to incarceration, the “branding” can be contagious, smudging off on families in ways that shift both their public image and their personal sense of self.

“The Bills Never Stopped”

Joe Jackson was handed the maximum possible sentence for his offense: three “lifetimes,” plus an extra thirty years piled on top. As they wobbled back into their own lives after the sentencing, Yvonne, April, and her two little brothers struggled for footing. Financially, things were a mess.

It’s not like the Jacksons had been living large in past years; April grew up in a trailer for the first ten years of her life, and says, “Dad barely made enough to get by.” But Joe’s imprisonment threw the family into a deeper, shakier pit of financial unpredictability. Their car was repossessed, Cole’s medical bills piled up to the ceiling, and Yvonne waged a constant battle to keep their house while working overtime at multiple jobs: a deli, house cleaning, construction. “Joe made our living so I could take care of Cole,” Yvonne says. “Without him it was me trying, and some days the bills never stopped.”

It’s a common turn of events: While prisoners are “stuck in the past,” family members are often left floundering to make up lost income. Most incarcerated parents were employed prior to their arrest, according to a 2005 study by the Urban Institute. (And that doesn’t count money the incarcerated person was bringing in by “illegitimate” means—also often used to put food on the table.) Sometimes, the family has lost its only income source and must start from scratch.

Amid money troubles and the strain of separation, family tension continued to tighten for the Jacksons. Yvonne and Joe divorced, with Joe insisting that it wasn’t fair for him to keep Yvonne tethered to him while he waited out the long years to die in prison. April pulled away from her mom, and, desperately seeking closeness, plummeted into a relationship with a controlling boyfriend who rapidly turned abusive. It took two and a half years to disentangle herself.

Meanwhile, April’s brother Billy slid toward violence himself. Crushed and confused by the loss of his dad—and angered by his classmates’ derision of his family—he got into frequent fights. Frantic at the possibility of another family member straying down a troubled path, Yvonne yanked him from school, homeschooling him on top of her other jobs (including, of course, caring for her chronically ill younger son).

Yvonne’s concern was no delusion. Boys whose parents are incarcerated are five times more likely to become incarcerated themselves, and kids of prisoners are more likely to go to prison than to graduate from high school. The effects often hit early on: Between 30 and 50 percent of children placed in juvenile detention centers have at least one parent who’s been to prison. According to a report by The Sentencing Project, “The arrest and incarceration of parents … takes an emotional toll on children, leaving some psychologically traumatized, fearful, anxious, withdrawn, socially isolated, grieving, or possibly acting out their feelings in disruptive ways.”

Of his dad’s incarceration, Billy says, “I think it caused me to grow up way too fast. I was twelve when I started working full time, started dating a girl when I was fourteen and was married to her at nineteen. I never really had a chance to be a kid, so when I was twenty, I started acting like one, and got in a lot of trouble and pretty much lost everything, including my now ex-wife, by the time I was twenty-one.” As for April, she fled her small town as soon as she could. These days, she completely avoids it. She doesn’t want to respond to the persistent “how’s your dad doing?” inquiry. It always has the same answer.

April hasn’t given up hope, though: She channels her frustrated energy into fighting for her dad’s release, applying for commutations, reaching out to public figures, connecting with activists. Meanwhile, Joe mails me a family picture taken on July 14, 2013. Like every photo for the past eighteen years, it’s set in a visiting room. Joe’s in his prison khakis, flanked by his children, including Cole, who, thanks to his lifesaving transplant, is alive, healthy, and smiling at twenty-three. A city skyline—a faux backdrop made available for visiting-room snapshots—sparkles behind the huddled group. “If I didn’t have my family, I’d just curl up and go to the next level,” Joe writes, signing off with his usual closing: “Your friend in a cage.”

Moving Out, Punching Holes

Even after years of hearing family members’ stories of loss and disconnection, each one still pricks me with weird surprise. I’m surprised to be surprised: Most of my brain, of course, knows way too well that incarceration has reverberating effects, hitting and marking all sorts of other people besides those in prison them selves. But a part of my mind still inhabits the pervasive, official logic of the prison-industrial complex, and that logic is all about subtraction. Prison’s role in society, the logic goes, is to toss away the bad eggs so they can’t poison us—so we don’t even have to see them. With those eggs cleared, we seamlessly close up the gaps and carry on, clean and whole.

The surprise pops up when the broken seams are revealed—the way that incarceration rips open new holes in the social fabric of families and communities outside, severing intricate networks strung together in ways that are observable only upon their breaking. Instead of eggs, we are tossing away people’s mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, partners, friends.

Those split ties are concentrated heavily in poor communities of color. While the fragmentation of black families (especially the departure of fathers) has, in dominant political and cultural spheres, often been attributed to personal failings, Michelle Alexander points out, “Hundreds of thousands of black men are unable to be good fathers for their children, not because of a lack of commitment or desire but because they are warehoused in prison, locked in cages.”

When a loved one is locked up, those left behind are often less able to participate actively in community life and in the economy, strained by severe shortages of money and time. There are sometimes more subjective forces tugging them away from their communities, too: shame (on their end) and fear or suspicion (on their neighbors’ side of the fence). Families’ self-isolation is compounded by the fact that some of their neighbors—such as Yvonne’s fellow basketball parents inching away from her on the bleachers—aren’t crazy about seeing them, anyway.

Often, family members relocate out of their communities either upon incarceration (in search of more affordable housing, since they’ve lost an income-earner) or afterward (in hopes of a less stigma-tainted transition). And as they walk away, they leave behind friends, schools, religious groups, and support networks—those ties that link families to the world.

In communities where incarceration is common, these ongoing removals, isolations, and relocations can prove a formidable barrier to building a stable, close community in which people know each other and look out for their neighbors. Researchers Todd Clear and Dina Rose, who have studied incarceration within the context of families and communities, write that the way in which imprisonment disrupts connections can actually make harm and conflict more likely. The researchers frame the effects of incarceration as a type of “social disorganization,” a process that interrupts lives, shaking and scattering the collective life of a community. An important part of preventing violence, according to Clear and Rose, is maintaining “informal social controls”: structures besides laws and law enforcement. These are things like neighbor interaction, community groups, close friend networks, and peer pressure (the good kind!) from loved ones.

So, when lots of people are moving in and out of a neighborhood—or isolating themselves to the point that they may as well have moved out of the neighborhood—the effectiveness of those informal controls plummets. It’s hard to maintain strong community networks if you’re not even sure who’s in your community. Add to that the fact that those who are incarcerated have themselves “moved out,” abruptly and with no choice in the matter (Clear and Rose call this process “coercive mobility”), punching holes in the networks they left behind. This phenomenon is deepest felt in poor communities of color, where high proportions of people are incarcerated.

Barbara Fair, the New Haven mother whose seven sons have all been incarcerated, hails from one such neighborhood. Unlike April Jackson’s small-town “friends,” many of Barbara’s neighbors have provided empathy and support: “Going to prison … was so common in my community that there wasn’t much of a raised brow about that,” she says. This commonality lends families in neighborhoods with high concentrations of former prisoners a unique base of communal support. If almost everyone has a relative or friend who’s been incarcerated, they’re less likely to judge. But residents are so supportive, in part, because they know all too well the venomous power of the stigma that runs thick outside the bounds of their neighborhoods—a stigma that captures prisoners, their families, and their communities in its widening net, isolating them in a sort of external jail of their own, in which actual imprisonment seems devastatingly predestined. As legal scholar Dorothy Roberts puts it, “Because all of the children in these communities have some experience with prison and may expect to be behind bars at some point in their lives, prisons are part of the socialization process…. Incarceration is a ‘rite of passage’ imposed upon African American teenagers.”

A Landslide of Consequences

The criminal justice system has coursed through Barbara Fair’s life for decades, starting when she was a teen and her brother was sentenced to prison. Soon after, Barbara herself was incarcerated for a couple of weeks—delivering a sharp premonition, she says, of emotions to come. She tells me, “I can still feel the pain and humiliation that cut through me.” Barbara’s kids grew up in the thick of the drug-war years and could serve as poster children for the strangling effects of that “war” on poor, black families. Each has been locked up for a drug-related conviction. “The greatest factor influencing my sons ending up in prison is the fact that they are young African American males, and thus the targeted commodity for the prison industry,” she says.

Barbara explains that not only are black males a targeted commodity, they’re an assumed commodity; they’re viewed as suspicious from youth on up. Her words mirror an interview I did with Mariame Kaba, the founder of Chicago’s Project NIA, an advocacy and education organization aimed at ending youth incarceration. Mariame spoke of how kids of color begin their lives weighed down by an obligation to prove their “innocence.” Unlike their white counterparts, their “guilt” is presumed from the start. “Black and brown youth are born with criminality inscribed on them,” Mariame said. “When they commit crimes, that’s just confirmation. Their job is to prove they’re not criminal.” On top of this assumption of criminality, family members of prisoners are often handed a whopping serving of guilt-by-association. Siblings often have it the worst, according to Todd Clear, who interviewed a group of families in an impoverished, mostly black neighborhood in Miami. In Imprisoning Communities, he writes, “Siblings often bear the brunt because there is the idea that if your sibling could be a criminal, then you could too.”
As her sons were carted off, Barbara’s life quickly molded itself around prison and its immediate effects: the weekly visits to various facilities—each at least forty-five minutes from home—the expensive phone calls, the panic attacks, the money troubles, the time constraints, the sadness.

Even after her sons came home, she wrestled with the lingering reverberations of their imprisonment. By the time Barbara and I get to know each other in 2013, all of her sons have been released, but her youngest—deeply traumatized by his time behind bars, some of which was spent in isolation—currently lives in a psych ward and still depends on his mother for constant support.

Barbara’s ordeal is just one example of how the incarceration of large numbers of men (especially black men) generates a landslide of consequences for women. In an interview, gender and criminology scholar Beth Richie tells me, “Clearly one of the ‘untold stories’ of mass incarceration is the way that women are disadvantaged. The most obvious part is their own incarceration. But… there is also the problem of women supporting men who are incarcerated and when they are released. It is visiting, housing, feeding, protecting, hiding, taking the rap for them. All kinds of things have women ‘working’ to create or maintain stability when men are incarcerated, or when [their] kids are incarcerated.”

Barbara Fair carried on this support work routine, sevenfold. But amid the sleepless chaos, she gleaned a panoramic view of the system in which she was entangled—and became convinced that the best way to cope was to dig in and fight it. In the years since, Barbara has jumped into the struggle full-force, traveling the country to speak out about bail, plea bargains, sentencing, juvenile justice, and the war on drugs. She’s reached out to Yale students to collaborate on projects like “The Worst of the Worst,” a video aimed at exposing the harmful effects of solitary confinement. She led a fight to oust a corrupt New Haven judge, she held a “Biking While Black” protest to speak out about the anti-black profiling of bikers on the street, and nowadays she’s working to set up dialogues throughout Connecticut between victims and people who’ve caused harm.

Yet after thirty years, the challenges are still just beginning, says Barbara. She’s thinking long-term—and big: “I have worked so hard at reform, and saw so little change, that I have come to the conclusion that revolution might be the only response to what is occurring in America relative to criminal justice and the prison industry it feeds.”

Full footnotes to the above excerpt can be found in Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better.

Copyright 2014 by Maya Schenwar. Not to be reproduced without permission of the publishers, Berrett-Koehler.

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