For 45 years I have been an educator, a role that has led me to work for issues that affect children and schools in general. When I was challenged to promote legislation to reduce mass incarceration, I wondered if prison reform was an area too far beyond my experience and expertise to tackle.
But then I saw the obvious connection of mass incarceration and education. Many children, especially those in impoverished urban and rural areas, have a parent who is in prison, often for a long time and frequently for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses.
An April 2016 policy report titled Kids Count, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, provides statistics that rank Indiana second of the 50 states regarding the number of kids who have had a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood. The 11 percent is about 177,000 Hoosier children. National estimates report as many as 5.1 million children who have a parent or parents who are or have been incarcerated.
A central Indiana community newspaper printed a story last fall about a single day’s drug bust of 50 people and included photos of those arrested. The people looked like anyone’s neighbors, relatives and friends. And, of course, they were.
Connect the dots and imagine the children who are affected. People who break drug laws have families, and when mandatory minimum sentences are given to poor people with low-level offenses, it isn’t unusual for a person to serve a significant time that removes a parent from the family for the length of a childhood.
Although individual school districts may not have their own specific numbers of students whose parents are incarcerated, teachers representing grades kindergarten through high school in rural, suburban and urban areas of Indiana are not surprised by the high estimates.
One teacher from an urban school said he might have two to three students per class to as many as five or six students per class who have a parent who is imprisoned.
Students at all ages have already learned to be ashamed of incarcerated parents and don’t share the information easily. One high school guidance counselor said it is important to wait for the student to describe the situation at home, adding that asking before establishing a relationship can cause the student to shut down. Sharing has to be on the student’s timeline. She said that those who do share may call their parents meth heads and say they want nothing to do with them. She described a student who became independent when he was 18 years old to avoid sharing the information about his parents with the school.
Many students who have incarcerated parents bounce between the homes of family, friends and churches often living with a grandparent and in some cases a great-grandparent as the student works as much as 30 to 40 hours per week to survive and go to school.
Teachers say that in addition to the academic, behavioral and attendance issues of these students, a heart-breaking characteristic is the loss of trust in adults in general — from the parents who are incarcerated to the teachers and mentors who care but have not been able to improve the family’s overall situation significantly.
The Kids Count policy report recommends redirecting funds to community-based treatment programs, transitional housing or reentry support to strengthen the families and communities.
Shorter sentences for nonviolent, minor drug offenses and better rehabilitation that helps offenders find jobs and get back to their families where they can work and nurture their children will not only improve the overall quality of life of this generation but decrease the school-to-prison pipeline that is more likely when a single parent or grandparent is left with all the responsibility while a parent is absent.
In a “60 Minutes” segment about drug abuse, Michael Botticelli, the president’s director of National Drug Control Policy, said, “We can’t arrest and incarcerate addiction out of people.” Adding that addicts should be patients, not prisoners, he emphasized his belief that incarceration of people addicted to drugs is not only inhumane but ineffective and expensive.
The good news is that U.S. Senate Bill S.2123, a bipartisan approach for sentencing reform, could change the current system by eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent, low-level drug offenses in federal prisons. Doing so could lead to the redirection of funds spent on incarceration to the recommendations listed above that could improve the quality of life for many families. (The Senate Judiciary Committee approved S.2123 on Oct. 22, and lawmakers introduced revisions April 28.)
The bill currently has 37 bipartisan sponsors.
U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Indiana, and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, have not yet voiced their support.
Anyone who wants Indiana to be part of prison reform that can help Hoosier families should contact both of our senators and ask them to join the list of sponsors for this bill.
As a teacher, I know that students have a better chance to succeed when they have a strong family unit. As a citizen of Indiana, I believe we should be doing everything we can to help reform our laws so that nonviolent drug offenders are treated, retrained and reunited with their families as soon as possible.
Diana Hadley is executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and adjunct professor at Franklin College, recording clerk of Indiana Friends Committee on Legislation, and member of a Friends Committee on National Legislation advocacy team.