How Mass Incarceration Pushes Black Children Further Behind in School

A new study shows that the disproportionate imprisonment rates faced by people of color contribute to race-based inequalities in educational attainment.

An inmate plays jump rope with her 10-year-old daughter and cousin at the Folsom Women's Facility in Folsom, California.
Taryn Mitchell, center, plays jump rope with her daughter, Lamariae Williams, 10, right, and cousin Schelette Butler during their visit at the Folsom Women's Facility in Folsom, California. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)

In the summer of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the closing remarks at the March on Washington. More than 200,000 people gathered to cast a national spotlight on and mobilize resistance to Jim Crow, racist laws and policies that disenfranchised black Americans and mandated segregated housing, schools, and employment. Today, more than 50 years later, remnants of Jim Crow segregation persist in the form of mass incarceration—the imprisonment of millions of Americans, overwhelmingly and disproportionately black adults, in local, state, and federal prisons.

The U.S. incarceration rate is more than five times higher than that in most of the world’s nations, despite a crime rate that’s comparable to other politically stable, industrialized countries. And among the swelling number of incarcerated men and women is a vast number of parents. In 2015, The Atlantic’s Alia Wong highlighted a study from Child Trends that found that one in nine black children has had a parent in jail or prison, about twice as high as that for white children. For black adolescents ages 12 through 17, it’s nearly one in seven. Predictably, this has implications for America’s classrooms.

In a new report, researchers from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (EPI) argue that mass incarceration is a chief contributor to the racial gaps in academic performance between black and white students. The study outlines a wide array of adverse effects for children of incarcerated parents and underscores how criminal-justice policy and education policy are linked.

“Education policymakers and many educators continue to insist that in order to narrow the achievement gap, we must tinker with what is happening in the classroom … improve the way schools are functioning,” said the EPI research associate Leila Morsy, the report’s co-author and a lecturer at the University of New South Wales. “[Yet] making changes to criminal-justice policy can make as much, if not more, of a difference [for children].”

Acknowledging that a significant body of research already exists on the discriminatory system that incarcerates black men at six times the rate of white men, and about 2.5 times the rate of Hispanic men, Morsy and her colleague trained their sights on “the disparate impact that this has on children, and how African American children suffer disproportionately.” Morsy said the EPI study is the first of its kind to compile all of the harms children of imprisoned parents suffer—academic, behavioral, and health impediments—and to draw a direct link between parental incarceration and children doing worse in school.

The report shows that having an incarcerated parent translates to a range of learning obstacles and health challenges. After a parent is imprisoned, children’s grade-point averages fall, as the likelihood of dropping out of school rises. Compared to children of non-incarcerated parents, these youth show a higher incidence of anxiety (51 percent more likely) and depression (43 percent), and are considerably more likely to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (72 percent), attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (48 percent), and behavioral issues (43 percent).

The analysis also finds that incarcerating parents leads to intergenerational trauma. Children of incarcerated adults are at greater risk for economic instability due to the loss of their family’s main income provider, and as a result more often end up in foster care or homeless—both of which are significantly correlated to academic underperformance. The children of incarcerated parents are also more likely to find themselves incarcerated eventually, repeating the cycle.

Importantly, Morsy said, the report’s data takes socioeconomic and demographic characteristics into account that could be used to mitigate the findings—including race, age, gender, parents’ educational attainment, and poverty status. “We reviewed studies across a number of different disciplines [like] epidemiology and sociology,” she said, adding that because the studies carefully control for factors that might contribute to poor outcomes “it suggests that it's parental incarceration itself that's the cause … and not the qualities of the children themselves or the children's families.”

Interestingly, the report is heavily weighted toward incarcerated black fathers despite shifting gender trends in who is arrested and jailed. In totality, far more men than women are currently imprisoned. Yet a study released last August by the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal-justice-reform think tank, showed the number of women in local jails—the majority of them black or Hispanic, and nearly 80 percent of them mothers—has grown 14-fold since 1970, representing the fastest-growing U.S. correctional population. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of women (82 percent) are jailed for nonviolent offenses.

Activists who work with incarcerated moms say the compelling and compounding harm when mothers are behind bars shouldn’t be overlooked. “The impact of incarcerated women, who are very often the sole caregiver for their children, is that those children are then displaced, and effectively punished through separation,” said Holly Krig, the director of organizing for Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, an advocacy group in Chicago.

Through her work, Krig has observed first-hand how mothers are underrepresented and ignored in the discourse surrounding incarcerated parents, which is even reflected in the visits that parents receive. “Fathers report far more visits from their children when they are incarcerated than women do. The reason for that is because more often children continue to live with their mothers when their father is incarcerated … it's the mother who ensures the kids continue to see their father. When moms are incarcerated, it's far less often … the kids are more likely to be in the custody of either state foster care systems or with a grandmother or another relative [without] the resources.”

To address this disparity, Krig’s organization teamed up with local community leaders to raise funds for bus trips to reunite children and their mothers incarcerated at Logan Correctional Center, a women’s prison about three hours southwest of Chicago. Launched on Mother’s Day 2016, the monthly visits with rotating groups of children have been critical for youngsters and parents alike. Kids who reported the type of symptoms summarized in the EPI report—difficulty in school, nightmares, and stress—are experiencing some improvements. “We've been very intentional about creating a space in which we can talk about the underlying issues, where we can address feelings of shame people have around incarceration,” Krig said, emphasizing that the visits are “crucial for the survivability of whole families affected by incarceration, both the people who are incarcerated and [their children].”

Combatting the negative impact of parental incarceration on children also fuels the work of Morsy, the EPI researcher and a former middle-school teacher. Time spent in Bronx and East Harlem classrooms cemented the belief that social conditions of children outside school are inseparably connected to better performance inside school—and “one of those social conditions [is] a fair criminal-justice system.”

The report calls for educators to make criminal-justice policy the focus of their advocacy at the local and state levels by teaming with criminal-justice reformers to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and nonviolent crimes, eliminate sentencing disparities, and increase support for released offenders. Morsy concedes that the recommendations are “a start, [not] a 100 percent solution, to our discriminatory justice system” but views them as a necessary and timely call to arms.

“Educators advocate for and against charter schools … for and against pay for performance for teachers. I don't see that it's different to advocate for policies that would improve their students' outcomes even if those policies are happening [outside] the education system,” she said, stressing that taking a stand to reform the criminal justice system is ultimately a child-centered, family-friendly policy.