A new book investigates the oft-overlooked subject of children whose parents are serving hard time. TAP sits down with Nell Bernstein, author of All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated (The New Press, 2005). Bernstein is an award-winning journalist whose stories have appeared in The Washington Post, Mother Jones, salon.com, and Newsday. She was a Soros Justice Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute of New York and she wrote the introduction to Juvenile, Joseph Rodriguez's 2004 monograph about jailed youths. She lives in Berkeley, California.
Why did you choose to investigate this topic?
I had worked with teenagers for many, many years. In college, I worked in a runaway shelter and then, after college, I worked in a group home. Then I spent nearly ten years editing a youth newspaper at Pacific News Service in California. I think I came to the topic more from an interest in family than from an interest in prison. I was working with these kids who were fighting tooth and nail, to have families, to hold onto their own families, to kind of make families out of us and each other. It was the nineties: the family values years, the '94 Republican revolution and the “Dan Quayle Was Right”-era. On the one hand, I was hearing about this lack of family values; on the other hand, I was meeting these kids who valued family tremendously but whose families were facing these pressures. Prison was a note that was struck again and again as I began to talk to them about their families and about what was missing in their lives.
Then I met one kid in particular, who I think really started it all for me. He was a boy named Ricky, who's in the book. I met him quite a while ago. I asked him how he had come to be in foster care, and he told me that, one day the police had come and taken his mother—he was nine years old—and left him alone with his baby brother. He and the baby were alone for two weeks. That was the moment when I realized that there was this population of kids who were invisible and who were profoundly affected by the criminal justice system but never really seen by it.
What were some of the frustrations you found while reporting on this “invisible” class of people?
First of all, these kids are everywhere. One in ten kids has a parent who is either incarcerated, on parole, or on probation, so the number of kids who've had that experience is obviously large -- but I couldn't find them. When I made my initial calls to youth-serving organizations, they just didn't know if any of their kids had in their lives. Now, the opposite is true. There's not a room I can enter and talk about this where someone doesn't tell me that it's happened to him or that it's in his family.
So, these kids are in a kind of “blind spot” as far as American society is concerned.
In two ways: For one, the institutions that comprise the criminal justice system don't ask about kids. There are exceptions to this, but that's the norm. And then organizations that are going to deal with large numbers of young people who've had this experience like schools and juvenile halls also rarely ask about parental incarceration.
How difficult was it for you to anaesthetize yourself to these emotional stories enough to be able to write from a more objective point of view?
I didn't do that, and I don't do that. I have not tried to anaesthetize myself and I have not tried to write from an objective point of view. I've tried as much as possible to write from the kids' point of view and to look at the system through their eyes. The book is a little unusual, I think, in that it has a policy agenda, as you will see in the last chapter.
On the other hand, I will say that talking to the kids changed me and changed my views and my politics in a lot of ways, particularly, I think, when it comes to drugs. I came into the project and left with a strong sense that our drug laws were making things worse rather than better, but I think six years ago, I might have been among those who described drug use as a victimless crime. The kids shook me out of that. They forced me to come to terms with the damage that parental addiction has wreaked in their lives. So I say I'm not objective, but it's not as if I came in with a set of preconceived notions that were immovable.
Why do you think that speaking about criminal justice in the United States is taboo? Why have Americans continued to vote for congressmen who impose mandatory minimum sentences and refuse to judges to account for mitigating circumstances?
ItR17;s so complicated. One thing I would say is that public opinion has changed in the last few years. There has been a lot of polling that has shown that people favor rehabilitation and drug treatment over long sentences, that they don't want people locked up forever. They are interested in community alternatives. That wasn't the case ten years ago, when public opinion showed a much more “lock ‘em up” mentality. I think that people are beginning to realize that prison expansion is happening at the expense of schools; illegal drug use is up despite twenty years of mandatory minimums. The politicians have not caught up. I think a lot of our crime policy is driven by anecdote. The mandatory minimum laws happened after a college basketball star—Len Bias—died [in 1986], and it was determined that he was using.
What happened to President Bush's much-heralded “compassion” in the structure of American society?
If I had to pick the American strain that is behind a lot of our penal policy and specifically behind our capacity to not see children, even when they're waving frantically -- I think it's American individualism that's to blame. We believe in individual responsibility; as a result, we've come up with a retributive model of justice. We insist on taking people who have committed all kinds of crimes -- not just people who are dangerous -- and decided that the only response is to airlift them out of their families and communities, put them in the middle of the state, and lock them in a cell. When they act out in prison, we put them in solitary. I think that that part of individualism which is part of our culture allows us not to see peoples' connections to their families and to their communities and to not understand that when you lift millions out of their families and communities, things are going to unravel.
So it's ironic that, in its quest for individual punishment, the American system ends up stigmatizing and punishing the family of the incarcerated.
In nineteenth-century criminology, there's this pervasive idea of hereditary taint, in which a criminal class passes this taint on from one generation to the next. We'd like to think we've moved away from that, but I really don't think that we have. I received a call on a radio show asking me, “What about the victims' kids?” as if the prisoner's children had done it to the victim's children. Kids feel that. They talk about it all the time.
How can “law and order” America stomach reform many perceive of as “soft on crime?”
Every piece of research that's come out over the years, and every bit of political rhetoric agrees that kids need families. I think that if we, as an exercise, took a minute to look at each person that we sentence through his kids' eyes, and asked ourselves, “Okay, what's the problem here? Is this a problem that requires incarceration? Or is this a different problem that needs to be dealt with legally, but in a way that is a), more likely to solve it and b), not disruptive of the parent-child bond. I think if we did that, I'd say our prison population would fall by half; I don't think there would be any harm to public safety; and there might be a benefit. And we just might get a system that works.
Simon Maxwell Apter is a Prospect intern.