When a parent goes to prison, children serve a sentence of their own.
Something is troubling Diane Wallace Booker, and though she’s talking via cell phone, the concern in her voice is as clear as our reception.
“Nearly 10 million children in America have experienced parental incarceration,” she says. “When a parent goes to prison, children are convicted right along with their parents and serve a sentence of their own.”
Booker is a lawyer and executive director of the Maryland-based U.S. Dream Academy, a national mentoring program founded by Seventh-day Adventist pastor and singer Wintley Phipps. Booker is trying to raise awareness of this issue and its impact on children, families, and society.
In a taped interview for Real Family Talk, a television program that airs weekly on the Hope Channel, she shared more about the imperceptible side effects of incarceration with hosts Willie and Elaine Oliver, who direct family ministries for the worldwide Seventh-day Adventist Church. “Children left behind often experience shame, depression, separation anxiety, feelings of abandonment, and isolation,” revealed Booker, a member of the Capitol Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church in Washington, D.C.
A newly released report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) backs and expounds on Booker’s assessment and that of several researchers. Parents interviewed for the few known studies around this topic reported behavioral changes, notably that the children became more private or withdrawn, did not listen to adults, became irritable, regressed and showed changes in emotional and mental health, lost trust in the incarcerated parent, and experienced grief or even guilt.
The report states that there are 2.23 million people in prison today—707 for every 100,000 U.S. citizens. This is four times the number of those incarcerated in 1972, when there were 161 for every 100,000. According to United States Bureau of Justice statistics, 53 percent of those incarcerated in 2007 were parents of minors, and 1.7 million children under age 18 had a parent in a state or federal prison.
Jeremy Travis, one of the authors of the NAS report, calls these statistics “staggering.” On a recent Sunday afternoon he talked about it on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered program. “The consequences are pretty profound,” he shared. “There are higher rates of homelessness among families when the father is in prison, poor developmental outcomes for the children in those families, and greater instability.” He also cited “significant racial disparities” among people of color, referring to a 2007 study that showed Black children as 7.5 times and Latino children as 2.7 times more likely than White children to have a parent in prison.1
“Many of these children fall through the cracks and become invisible to our church and society. They also fall behind in school as they suffer from a lack of motivation, connection, and hope for the future,” Booker notes. It can all converge and lead to a path of destruction, as evidenced by the high numbers of juvenile detention youth whose parents are also in the system. Children of an incarcerated parent are six times more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system.
To break this troubling cycle, the Dream Academy operates after-school tutoring and mentoring programs for 700 children whose parents are incarcerated or have a family history of imprisonment.
“Our mission is to empower young people who are at risk of future incarceration to fulfill their potential,” she shares. “As Pastor Phipps says, ‘A child with a dream is a child with a future,’ so by fostering a yearlong relationship with a caring adult, we work to help these young people dream.”
In programs operated at schools in eight U.S. cities—Baltimore, Houston, Indianapolis, Memphis, Orlando, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Salt Lake City—volunteers from the Seventh-day Adventist Church and other faith traditions spend time helping the kids build character, skills, and dreams.
Though their efforts are yielding measurable results, the need is as long as the day.
“Daddy Got Six Months Left”
The Seventh-day Adventist Church operates an extensive and renowned prison ministries arm worldwide, with myriad activities targeting inmates with visitation, worship services, Bible studies, and reentry initiatives. 2 While Booker agrees this is commendable, she sees an opportunity to stem the tsunami of incarceration with more attention and support to the families and children left behind.
“Kids often have questions about why their parent is gone, where they are, and what they did wrong. They need someone to talk to about their fears, reassurance that their parent’s mistake is not their fault, and to know that they are still cared about and that we’re still here for them,” she told the Olivers on Real Family Talk.
While lending such support and encouragement, Booker says the children are never asked what their parent did wrong. “They may not even know,” she notes, adding that when a parent breaks the law or does something wrong, it doesn’t necessarily make them bad people or parents.
Booker and her friend Carolyn LeCroy, who served time when her sons were young adults, say helping families stay connected is one proven key to decreasing the rate of recidivism.
“When I was in prison, my family visited regularly, but my heart went out to moms who never got visits or when people didn’t come as expected. They were so disappointed,” LeCroy recalls. “I thought, if this is how they feel, imagine how their kids or other family members on the outside feel.”
LeCroy, a Virginia resident sentenced to 55 years in prison for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, witnessed the effects of those broken relationships. “The children are the silent victims of their parent’s crime,” she attests. She was paroled after 14 months, but couldn’t shake the painful memories of being separated from her husband and sons. In 1999, camera crew in tow, LeCroy went back to prison to record video messages from inmates to send to their children and families as Christmas gifts. Since then, the Messages Project has recorded and delivered more than 9,000 videos from incarcerated parents in six states and the country of Malawi.
In her appearance on Real Family Talk, scheduled to air on the Hope Channel next month, LeCroy said that in the many videos she’s produced, parents sing, read bedtime stories, pray, cry, talk, and even apologize to their kids. “One parent showed his child how to tie his shoes. Another [demonstrated] how to shoot and play basketball,” she said.
In a moving video clip LeCroy shares with permission, a father named David, clad in a light-blue dress shirt and navy-blue pants, finishes reading a children’s book titled Knuffle Bunny to his daughter—then holds up six fingers and shares his heart:
“As you know, Daddy got six months left, and then Daddy will be home. It’s been a long road—a real long road. I know it’s been tough, and I know it’s been hard. . . . I just wanna say that Daddy is sorry. I’m sorry for leaving you and Mommy out there alone. . . . What can you expect from Daddy? . . . I’m going to be a loving daddy to you, a caring father as much as I can. I’m goin’ to be nice, I’m not goin’ to be mean, I’m goin’ to try not to be mean to you. . . . I just want to be there for you. I want to ride the bikes, I want to teach you how to swim. I want you to teach me how to skate ’cause I don’t know how to skate. . . . I want to eat ice cream, go to the park, and I wanna do all these things that I couldn’t do with you being in here. . . . So, uh, I want to say that I’m proud of you . . . and I can’t wait to get home with you so we can continue this reading thing . . .”
No matter how they use the time, LeCroy, who’s worked for the Virginia Department of Corrections for the past 15 years, says the videos she voluntarily produces facilitate parenting behind bars, strengthen family bonds, and send a most important message to the children: “Mommy or Daddy still loves me.”
As a result of her ministry, “caregivers”—the remaining parents, grandparents, foster parents, and others who look after the children in a parent’s absence—report positive behavioral and attitudinal changes, better grades, and less fighting.
To encourage positive outcomes for all involved, LeCroy just published a book that prepares families for reunification. It’s called A Parent’s Message: An Interactive Program Supporting Parent-Child Bond, and includes worksheets that both kids and parents can complete to establish and maintain a healthy bond.
In addition to tapping this resource, Booker and LeCroy would like to see churches augment current prison ministries programs with prevention and/or family reunification efforts. They suggest churches could offer parenting classes to foster healthy family relationships and disciplinary options, facilitate letter-writing activities to help and encourage kids to stay in contact with parents, and/or network and collaborate with other ministries to help families maintain a connection when a parent is placed in a distant state or beyond driving distance—kind of like a third-party operator.
Though it wasn’t on her agenda, that’s essentially what Evelyn Harris does. And she vividly remembers the day she got the “call” to do it.
It was from her grandson, Charles, an inmate at the Trenton Penitentiary, who relayed sad news: a fellow inmate he had been trying to encourage with food, friendship, and spiritual literature used bedsheets to end his life. He was only 22.
“Grandmommy, you’ve got to do something,” urged Charles, who is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
“What can I do?” Harris asked.
“You used to tell us Bible stories when we were little. Why don’t you put them on CD and sell them, and use the funds to help these young men call home like you [do for me] monthly,” he suggested. “Grandmommy, please do something.”
Harris was challenged. Bible stories on CD? How would she accomplish that?
The member of the University Heights Seventh-day Adventist congregation in New Brunswick, New Jersey, was about to retire after 45 years of serving as a teacher, guidance counselor, and school administrator. And she’d already been accepted into a doctoral program for psychology.
As with other perplexities, Harris took it to the Lord in prayer and was impressed to solicit the help of her musically inclined son, Orville, Jr., and to call a studio.
She soon established Hope Through Harris House, LLC, set up a Web site (http://hopethroughharris.com/), and started recording Bible stories. Since 2010 she’s released 11 CDs. Each features one Bible story separated into four chapters that are accompanied by Orville’s keyboard music. Story titles include: “The Prince Who Became King,” “401 Mighty Horsemen and One Crippled Old Man,” and “Barak, the Mighty Warrior, Meets the Princess Judge.”
Proceeds from the CD sales help incarcerated individuals phone home. That may sound like a simple cause to support, but Harris says many incarcerated parents can’t afford to make calls, and many of their loved ones can’t afford to accept collect calls. Like Booker and LeCroy, she recognized a need and knew the unrequited implications could be harmful. As a guidance counselor she’d witnessed it firsthand with her young students.
On many a Monday morning during her years in public school, Harris says young Black boys were sent to her office for allegedly being disruptive and dysfunctional in class. “On Friday they seemed fine, but on Monday they were agitated and upset,” she recalls. “I couldn’t figure out why.”
Typical of an educator, Harris turned to research and discovered a disturbing but little-known pattern. An alarmingly large percentage of the Black boys in her city were recommended for special education. She didn’t want that trend to continue, because once classified, it was hard to get it changed. Determined to find the root cause, Harris brought the boys to her office, gave them juice, milk, and cookies, and asked what had happened over the weekend. What she heard provided a plausible explanation:
“My mama went to visit my daddy this weekend, and didn’t take me.”
“My dad tried to call home this weekend, but my mom couldn’t accept the call. She says she don’t have no money.”
“I want to talk to my daddy, Ms. Harris. I want to talk to my daddy!”
Harris understood their need for a connection with their father and believes Jesus would too.
“In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus cried out for His Father,” she says, referring to the biblical account recorded in the Gospels. “He was 33, and after a talk with His Father, He was ready to face the cross.”
Willie Oliver, the television host and pastor who directs Adventist family ministries, also has a doctorate in sociology, and explains further: “Children need a significant emotional connection with their parents, regardless of the circumstances. . . . Without that connection, there will be a perennial vacuum in their lives.”
From the Cradle to the Prison
Like Booker and LeCroy, Harris wants to help the unwitting victims of incarceration and is using every opportunity to do so. At the July 2014 banquet for Allegheny East Conference’s 50+ Ministry, which she also leads, Harris held up a CD and made an announcement to the 443 seniors gathered at the conference headquarters in Pine Forge, Pennsylvania: “This is a ministry; it’s $10 a CD. I want to break the cycle of incarceration from the cradle to the prison,” she shared. “Also, if you have someone in prison and you want to speak to them and the funds aren’t there, I will add you to my list.”
She sold 20 CDs and got eight requests for help. One came from Sue, 3 a banquet attendee from Baltimore who came as a church member’s special guest. Sue later told Harris that her son, 42, has served eight years and has seven more to go, but doesn’t have enough money to call his family back home.
Once she completes an intake form about Sue’s son, Harris plans to use some of the funds collected at the banquet to add money to his phone bank. She’ll do the same for the others on her growing list.
In the NPR interview Jeremy Travis suggested that since there will always be people in prison, breaking the cycle would mean addressing the “collateral consequences of incarceration,” which present challenges for the communities, social workers, educators, law enforcement, and family members who surround and support the children left behind.
For Booker it starts with mentoring and tutoring.
For LeCroy it starts with a video.
For Harris it starts with a phone call.
And in your church and community, it could start with you.
To learn more about Real Family Talk and watch the programs related to this story, visit: www.hopetv.org/realfamilytalk.
- J. Travis, B. Western, and S. Redburn, eds., The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, Committee on Causes and Consequences of High Rates of Incarceration, Committee on Law and Justice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, National Research Council, 2014), pp. 33, 260, 270.
- For information on Adventist prison ministries, including short articles, photos, and video, please visit www.adventistreview.org/silentvictims.
- Sue is a pseudonym.