I may not be a trained Psychologist but I’ve sadly earned a PhD from the School of Hard Knocks when it comes to children’s insecurity caused by having a parent in prison. I hesitate to discuss the specific impact upon my own kids, for the sake of preserving and nurturing their still delicate psyches. So, I’ll rather share my insights and perspective through vignettes that all inmates, in one way or another, have experienced during their sentence.
To begin with, parents serve as god-like figures in their children’s lives. We represent an authority figure who sets the rules and can do no wrong, while simultaneously providing stability and security. That all gets undermined in one fell swoop as a whirlwind of questions run through their young minds. How will my life change? Will I go to the same school, still live in the same house (or apartment), will I ever see my mommy (or daddy) again? All of that, combined with fyi about. Some friends do stick by your side but even they have their limits when the bullying kicks in. “You are a criminal just like your mommy (or daddy),” is an all too common refrain. You did nothing to deserve this, as you run away to cry, wondering if this nightmare is ever going to end. Why can’t mommy (or daddy) just come home already and make everything all better.
The spouse left behind tries his (or her) best but it’s tough to play both roles. That stress is then unintentionally projected at the children. Some parents cry, others fall into deep depression, while still others lash out, on occasion, in frustration. they too are suffering. It’s usually some combination of the above along with other detrimental behaviors that impact the children on a very extreme psychological level.
It’s only a matter of time before all of this starts to negatively reverberate throughout our children’s lives. It begins with broken sleeping patterns, unbelievable anxiety and eating disorders. Many then turn to drugs and alcohol, for escape, even at a young age. Sexual promiscuity seeking attachment, a connection, is also a common side effect. Kids will also begin to withdraw or misbehave at school. Former straight A students will suddenly begin to fail or even get expelled for bad conduct. Learning problems also develop, especially in younger ones.
Many get psychologically trapped in that phase of childhood, affecting their ability to mature. Most have no idea how to seek out help or even express their feelings. In fact, they barely even know what’s happening to them. They are on autopilot, acting out for attention, wondering what’s wrong with themselves, just wanting the pain to stop. It’s therefore also understandable that many of them begin to throw massive temper tantrums even going on into adulthood. Many inmates I knew had adult children who failed out of college, sometimes more than once, in protest as some sort of exercise in extreme irresponsibility. It’s no wonder that many children of the incarcerated grow up to have scrapes with the law themselves.
As an inmate, I can’t even begin to explain how painful it is to watch your family implode, while you sit on the sidelines, powerless to help. The implosion may not always be spectacularly disastrous for all of us, but everyone gets to know it on some level. There’s usually some ebb and flow as things continue to go awry just as you begin to feel that the worst most certainly must have passed by now. There always seems to be another shoe yet to drop. The guilt of knowing that you are the cause of all this unnecessary and avoidable pain is enough to drive some insane. This combined with all the kids have gone through makes eventual family reunification a serious challenge.
Crime and punishment. It’s as old as time. But does the punishment fit the crime. As we continue to consider all the stakeholders in criminal justice, from government to victim, criminal to bystander, and even society as a whole, it’s imperative that we examine the results of extreme punishment. Is it effective, is it just? Can we temper it with a bit more humanity for the sake of the innocents, unintentionally paying a huge price in the process?