The Effect Of Youth Incarceration On Siblings And The Family

As the policemen dragged her brother away, my friend Julia screamed for them to stop, but they ignored her. She and her family received no information as to what happened to her brother, only to find out a couple weeks later that he was being held in a detention center several hours from her home until his trial. Eventually, he was sentenced to a prison an hour closer, but visiting weekly within the certain visiting hours was nearly impossible for her family. She watched as her brother’s incarceration took its toll on her parents’ marriage and her daily routine. She had trouble focusing at school as a whirlwind of emotions swirled within her. Julia later told me that the only way she could articulate it at the time was that she missed her best friend terribly.

Siblings may not get along all of the time, but there is a unique bond between them, and when a child is incarcerated, there is a gaping hole in the family that has profound effects. Often, siblings like Julia are left wondering about the fate of their sibling and watching the emotional and financial burdens that fall on the parents. These burdens that the family bears drive an even greater wedge between the incarcerated youth and his or her family.

There are numerous studies and organizations that represent children who have a parent in prison, but those who have a sibling in prison are often overlooked. In fact, no one is sure how many children bear this particular burden. It is estimated that 200,000 youth are incarcerated every year, leaving an even greater number of siblings at home.

It is estimated that 200,000 youth are incarcerated every year, leaving an even greater number of siblings at home.

Even with such a large number of children affected, very little research or resources are devoted to the siblings of incarcerated youth. A study conducted by sociologist Katie Heaton addresses this very point. She writes that these youths are the “most often overlooked” of those affected by incarceration. Non-offending siblings face high amounts of “emotional stress” partially stemming from issues like “bullying by other students who discovered their sibling’s imprisonment, adjusting to new household roles and routines, complex feelings of ambivalence related to their sibling’s safety, visiting their brother or sister, and having their sibling return home after an extended period away.” Even still, these children are overlooked by society.

Non-offending siblings and their families face daily consequences because of the criminal acts of a child. In a story shared in an Atlantic forum, a young man writes, “For as long as long as I can remember, my childhood was spent with my (single parent) mother spending her money, energy, and limited resources on attorneys and visitations for my older brother ... Eventually, after being forced to lie for so long about where my brother ‘lived,’ I stopped saying I had a brother. The embarrassment and anxiety and guilt of having a brother incarcerated was too much.”

His story is not uncommon. The siblings of incarcerated youth face a variety of emotions — shame, anger, worry, and perhaps even a sense of guilt. Young children especially are simply not able to process emotions as well as adults, and these feelings play out in unforgiving contexts. With all the emotional confusion, non-offending youths are more likely to act out in contexts such as school, and in schools that implement a zero-tolerance policy, acting out could have long-term consequences.

Earning the name “School-to-Prison Pipeline,” public schools that implement a zero-tolerance policy push struggling kids out of school and into the prison system by making use of police force, detention, and expulsion in order to discipline the students. Rather than guiding misbehavior, outbursts that even simply “disrupt a classroom” are often met with expulsion or even arrest. Children carrying the emotional baggage from their siblings’ incarceration are easily funneled into this pipeline because of their difficulty in processing the emotions surrounding the loss of their sibling.  And when met with the unique influences of older siblings when it comes to bad behavior, the path to prison is more likely for the siblings of incarcerated youth when left to themselves. 

The Role of the Family

Children need support, especially when they’re wrestling with the incarceration of their sibling, and the family is best positioned to provide this support. Families provide a sense of identity, nurture, and love that is important in keeping children out of prison, yet the juvenile justice system excludes the family from the process, beginning the moment that the child is arrested. Even when parents seek to help bridge the gap between incarcerated youths and their siblings, the systemic barrier between a child in prison and the family at home makes it extremely difficult for families to even obtain information, let alone be involved.

The current system divides the family in a traumatic and isolating way, stripping the family of its God-given role. Youth often serve time far away from home with limited access to phone calls or visitation hours.

One severe impact is the financial burden that comes with incarceration. One Louisiana parent wrote, “You can lose everything. Financially it will pull you down trying to hold on to a child.” For low-income families in particular, court costs alone are roughly one year’s income, followed by the cost of phone calls, visits, time off of work, and other unexpected fees. Families often have to choose between their incarcerated child and basic necessities.

Even if court costs were manageable, children are housed in prisons that are difficult for family members to reach because of distance or access to transportation. Even if the family were to take time off from school or work to visit, visiting restrictions such as insufficient hours or an arbitrary number of visitors make visitation difficult. In interviews conducted by an organization called Justice4Families, over half parents said that, due to these restrictions, they found it nearly impossible to obtain any information of how their child was doing, driving the family even farther away.

A Public Justice Response

Despite all of this, there’s hope for restoration in the juvenile justice system. Shared Justice’s Policy Report on Juvenile Prisons presents a course of action for the juvenile justice system to become more restorative. A shift from a purely punitive approach to juvenile justice to a restorative one requires the involvement of the family, local church, government, and community. Families are hindered from fulfilling their God-given role in the current system, but by moving towards a more restorative approach, families can begin to be more involved in the process and more supportive of children who are both behind bars and at home.

The government should seek to implement policies that consider the whole family and seek to be restorative for a child, rather than simply locking him or her away. Incarcerating fewer children is an important way to support the family, and closing youth prisons is one way to do that. However, a step in the meantime is to, when necessary, place youth in correctional facilities that are closer to home. This allows for families to visit their children and to be more involved in their lives.

Justice4Families asked parents what they would like to change about the juvenile justice system. Over 90 percent responded that they wanted it to be easier to be involved in areas such as the court process, visitation, and communication with the system. This would help the family to support its children, both inside and outside of prison. The family is an important institution established by God as an expression of covenantal love and trust, which when broken or distorted impacts the entire community. However, when strengthened, these children can know a sense of restoration and healing.

A shift from a purely punitive approach to juvenile justice to a restorative one requires the involvement of the family, local church, government, and community.

But this issue demands the involvement of citizens, churches, and nonprofits as well. Organizations such as Justice4Families, Action for Prisoners’ Families, and Center for Community Alternatives are working alongside families with incarcerated children to serve them at whatever stage they may be in.

Families in these situations are often struggling. Parents turn to online forums that provide a space for them to receive information and support. Churches have a unique opportunity to step into these children’s lives by supporting families in the community. After school programs, outreach ministries, and wholesome community can provide emotional, social, and physical support that these children aren’t receiving.

While pursuing systemic change, we can be involved in supporting children like Julia by partnering with a local organization or church that has programs for families or children with family members in prison. These organizations are often understaffed with little funding, and our participation can make an important impact. While these children may be the “most often overlooked family members” by researchers, they should not be overlooked by those who love Jesus since His love is for the marginalized. This is an opportunity to live out our Christian calling and to advocate for families impacted by incarceration.

-Lauren MacDougall is a junior at Covenant College studying International Studies, French, and Economics.