Mass incarceration in the United States has many critics, not least are the 2.7 million children who currently have at least one parent behind bars. In this “land of the free,” which boasts only five percent of the world’s population, fully 25 percent of the world’s prison population languishes.
Many groups challenge this system, promoting reform of the judicial system that has produced such statistics. But in the meantime, some of those who suffer most are the children growing up without the guiding influence of one or more of their parents.
In an effort to both raise awareness of the situation and shine a light into the shadows that often crowd such children’s lives, Google began a campaign on Mother’s Day to facilitate the sharing of videos from children to their imprisoned mothers. This Father’s Day, Sunday June 19, the initiative, christened #LoveLetters, continues.
“The videos reveal a side of mass incarceration that many people don’t get a chance to see,” wrote Malika Saada Saar, Google’s public policy and government relations senior counsel, for civil and human rights. “They allow us to bear witness, to be proximate to the very human costs of incarceration.”
A sad fact is that many first-time, nonviolent offenders who end up serving time are parents, often to young children. Blacks are imprisoned at a rate almost six times higher than whites, and a black child is 7.5 times likelier to have a parent in prison.
But regardless of race, the impact on a child of growing up with a parent confined in a correctional facility can be traumatic. Indeed, in an April report entitled “A shared sentence,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that such experience can be as devastating to a child’s well-being “as abuse or domestic violence.”
These children feel the absence of that adult — whether it is several nights in jail or years in prison — in myriad ways, even if they weren’t sharing a home. They feel it when their refrigerator is bare because their family has lost a source of income or child support. They feel it when they have to move, sometimes repeatedly, because their families can no longer afford the rent or mortgage. And they feel it when they hear the whispers in school, at church or in their neighborhood about where their mother or father has gone.
It was to raise awareness of this, in a very personal way, that Google decided to partner with several non-governmental organizations, to record a series of video messages that capture the words, the emotions, and the expressions of children living without a parent. They illustrate the bond that can exist between a child and their parent, and the pain that so often accompanies the bars that divide them.
“It’s been really hard growing up without a father for so much of my life,” says one girl on the Father’s Day compilation video. “I can’t wait for you to be out here, and for us to try and make up the past 13 years,” says another.
There is a light at the end of this tunnel, though, and the drive for reform is gathering pace, not least in tackling one of the fundamental causes of the US incarceration rate: sentencing for drug-related offenses.
Of particular interest is the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015, introduced for consideration but yet to be signed into law. According to Jeremy Haile, federal advocacy counsel for The Sentencing Project, the bill aims to “reduce drug penalties that have contributed to an 800% increase in the federal prison population since 1980.”
“The bill is not perfect,” wrote Mr. Haile in the Huffington Post this May. “But the test for a criminal justice reform bill — indeed for any piece of legislation — is not whether it is perfect, but whether it is better than the alternative.”