Lois Ahrens: Experience of incarceration affects whole families

Last modified: Monday, September 23, 2013

To the editor:

Who is being punished?

As Ifetayo Harvey knows, the stigma and shame of having a loved one in prison spills over onto them. She is the Smith College student who wrote Wednesday’s guest column, “How the war on drugs affects kids like me.”

When I visit friends in prison, I am treated with suspicion and contempt by prison guards, as if I am too am guilty. Recently, the state Department of Correction proposed that all visitors including children and the elderly would be sniffed by dogs while waiting for hours in cramped visiting rooms. The outrage of families and friends as well as human rights advocates has, at least for the moment, put the plan on hold.

The war on drugs and extreme sentencing has fueled an unprecedented rise in incarceration. The Women’s Prison Association reports the number of mothers in prison increased by 122 percent since 1991 while the number of incarcerated fathers increased by 77 percent. In the month prior to arrest, 64 percent of mothers lived with their children as did 47 percent of fathers. Closer to home, 85 percent of the women held in the Chicopee jail for women — including women who have been convicted and the more than 25 percent incarcerated because they are too poor to make bail — are mothers. What happens to their children if no grandmother or other family member cares for them?

Last month, the Bureau of Prisons announced it was sending 1,000 women incarcerated in the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., to Aliceville, Ala. — a town with no airport, train or long-distance bus service. The women in Danbury are from the Northeast and mothers to more than 700 children.

Preventing visits whether by the Bureau of Prisons or discouraging them through dogs in visiting rooms punishes children and families. It also runs counter to all research that shows that women and men returning home after prison will lead more productive lives if they remain connected to their families.

Lois Ahrens


Lois Ahrens is director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project.


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