When a Sibling Goes to Prison

Thousands of young people are sent to prison every day, leaving behind scores of brothers and sisters researchers know very little about.

This is the first article in a six-part series about young people with siblings in prison.

Over 5 million kids in the United States currently have or have had a parent in prison. That works out to about one in 14 American children—a majority of whom are under age 10. Broken down by state, children with incarcerated parents can represent 3 to 13 percent of the population, according to “A Shared Sentence,” a report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The unusually intense stress that these children face has been well documented and studied. That’s mostly due to researchers’ emphasis on the parent-child relationship when analyzing incarcerated populations—and how little support is available for those left-behind children who are forced to stand by as their primary role models, caregivers, and providers are put behind bars.

But incarceration also affects a separate number of children who have been isolated from another profound relationship: They are the children with siblings in jail or prison—and much less is known about them. It isn’t even clear how many of them there are.

One recent U.S.-based analysis of grief and coping among “non-offending siblings,” as the literature often refers to them, brands them as the “most often overlooked” family members of adjudicated youth. The study’s author, sociologist Katie Heaton, detailed the levels of daily “emotional stress” siblings may experience, including “bullying by other students who discovered their sibling’s imprisonment, adjusting to new household roles and routines, complex feelings of ambivalence related to their sibling’s safety, visiting their brother or sister, and having their sibling return home after an extended period away.”

Heaton concluded that non-offending siblings suffer from “disenfranchised grief”:

Disenfranchised grief is a particularly difficult form of loss to overcome because the majority of cases involving this form of grief are the consequences of personal decisions of behaviors made. Such loss often creates a sense of shame or guilt within the individual or that person’s family, making it difficult to openly mourn, discuss, or cope with the actions that have created the loss.

Given the depth of these effects, why have the U.S. institutions that usually analyze the trends and impacts of the criminal-justice system paid so little attention to siblings as an analytical subject?

“I honestly don’t know that we have an answer to that question,” says Janet Lauritsen, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who has studied the issue. “The siblings don’t get much attention even in the offending literature.” She explained that when data is collected, it tends to focus strictly on the adjudicated individual, not on the family. And even when researchers do conduct qualitative work, they lean heavily toward family dynamics that are based on parent-child relationships and usually don’t interview siblings. Lauritsen says, it’s due to a “lack of careful thought about how siblings might contribute or feel the pain of their siblings’ incarceration.” The dearth of information may also be due to limited resources. Data-collection would require more money, more time, and larger teams in order to gather enough information on multiple generations in families to then be able to isolate the impact incarceration had just on siblings.

However, Lauritsen points out that since she undertook her initial research years ago, the makeup of the typical family may have changed significantly enough that searching for causal or correlative relationships might prove even more challenging today. “I’m not completely certain that there would still be as strong a sibling effect as there was 30 years ago,” she explains. “I say that because the family size has declined over time, and the complexity of sibling and stepsibling relationships has increased over time.”

In the 1970s, Lauritsen says, the family model that was assumed for research purposes meant a household with three children who grew up together. They even used that model if there was a divorce. “It’s a lot easier to study [siblings’] effects on each other when they’re always together, not separated through new family configurations, new marriages, and divorces,” Lauritsen says. Easier to study, but not reality: The average number of children per family has decreased, so there simply aren’t as many options for studying the effects of one sibling’s incarceration on the other. Additionally, today more American families—23 percent—have just one child than at any other point in U.S. history.

Studies in the United Kingdom have attempted to put the focus on “this largely invisible population in the criminal justice system.” One analysis concluded that 80 percent of existing research on prisoners’ families “have never asked about how [brothers and sisters] are coping following their sibling’s imprisonment.” The study made two other significant conclusions regarding siblings of the incarcerated: They are at an increased risk of becoming offenders themselves (especially brothers), and they are at risk for considerably more physical and mental-health problems, like becoming withdrawn, displaying anger, and having low self-esteem.

Another British study by the sociologist Rosie Meek found, “Sibling imprisonment had affected the school, social and family life of the participants … and many were preoccupied with worrying about the well-being of their older brother, both in prison and after release from custody.” What’s more, “older sibling offending was related to younger sibling offending in both brothers and sisters.”

That kind of sibling-to-sibling impact is serious. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s report “Juvenile Offenders and Victims,” 1.6 million kids under the age of 18 were arrested in 2010, including those young people who were involved in 800, or 8 percent, of that year’s murders. Half of the youth offenders were taken into custody for simple assault, drug-abuse violations, larceny-theft, and disorderly conduct. Another large portion of kids were arrested for violating liquor laws, breaking curfew, loitering, vandalism, and simple assault. Whatever their crimes, all of them have one thing in common: They all left families behind—and many times, that included the impressionable siblings who just lost a little brother or big sister to prison.

The good news is that those figures also represent the lowest youth crime rates in American history. From 2005 to 2014, youth arrests dropped by a staggering 51 percent, compared with just a 14 percent decrease for adults. Similarly, between 1997 and 2013, there was a 48 percent drop in the number of young people placed in corrections facilities, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice. Still, when 1.6 million kids are getting arrested each year, there could be another million siblings watching. What lessons will they absorb?

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The British advocacy groups Connexions and Action for Prisoners’ Families provide a guidebook, Supporting Young People With a Prisoner in the Family, for social workers and others who work with kids impacted by the incarceration of a relative. The book notes that there is no typical reaction. Some children put the incarcerated sibling’s needs before their own or take on more responsibilities within the family, which can “put them under considerable emotional strain and pressure.” Other children become “angry towards the prisoner for disrupting their lives and causing hurt to their families.” Some children find themselves spiraling into unknown territory—frightened by prison visits, guilt-ridden, or bullied. Some feel relief if the sibling was abusive.

Worse, some feel newly vulnerable—perhaps losing a protector when their sibling went away. According to a Center for the Study of Social Policy report, “Fight for Our Girls,” the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention found that “among those involved in the juvenile justice system, girls’ rate of sexual abuse is four times higher than boys’, and their rate of complex trauma (five or more adverse childhood experiences) is almost twice as high.” At those rates, every time a troubled girl is sentenced, many non-offending siblings are being left behind in an unsafe situation.

Having a sibling in jail or prison can also have severe financial consequences for a family. As it is, children who come from impoverished families are over-represented in the juvenile-justice system. The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that “65 percent of families with a member in prison or jail could not meet basic needs.” That can be an especially harsh reality for a non-offending brother or sister who sees limited resources being diverted away from their needs and toward the child in custody.

The Juvenile Law Center analyzed juvenile-justice statutes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia to understand the network of legal financial obligations encountered by youth and families going through the system. The center also conducted a national survey of families, lawyers, other professionals in the field, and adults who experienced the system as young people. Some of the fees they encountered include: costs for evaluating and testing the young person; child support paid to the state (called “cost of care”); health-care, mental-health care, and medication costs; GPS-monitoring costs; public-defender fees; and court expenses like transportation, prosecution, witness fees, and general-operations costs. In some states, even a family who has been declared indigent is responsible for these bills. Also, many of the costs are nonrefundable, even if the young person is found not responsible for any crimes. Unsurprisingly, the Juvenile Law Center concluded that such costs are “burdensome,” “overwhelming,” “harmful,” and can “exacerbate the family’s economic distress” and push a young person further into the system.

To illustrate the point, the report includes a brief example from Alameda County, California, where the average juvenile-justice case will cost a family $2,000. “For a single-parent family making federal minimum wage, even the average payment constitutes approximately two months’ salary,” the report states. “Even seemingly minimal payments may require families to choose between buying basic necessities, such as groceries, and paying fees.” Add to this perfect storm of financial trouble the fact that children 10 to 14 years old who have an incarcerated member of the family are also at a 41 percent higher risk of having their first child before marriage, a Princeton University study concluded. (This revelation is particularly notable at a time when teen-pregnancy rates have plummeted.) For many non-offending siblings, life can quickly feel hopeless.

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Sometimes siblings are asked to play a role in the implicated young person’s court proceedings. “A sibling, for example, could be an eyewitness to whatever the issue is,” says attorney Tim Curry, director of training and technical assistance at the National Juvenile Defender Center, which focuses on defending youth in juvenile court, where children are prosecuted as children and not as adults. “If the sibling has positive things to say towards the defense, they might be a defense witness. If the state believes that the sibling has information against their own sibling, they could force them to testify as a state’s witness against their own sibling.” The Center deals primarily with status offenses, which are not considered crimes and which include truancy, curfew violations, underage drinking, smoking, and running away.

Not only do prosecutors have every right under state laws to subpoena a sibling and force him or her to testify against their own brother or sister; the parents have no say in whether or not they will allow the minor to testify. There’s no sibling equivalent for the parent-child privilege that some states have, which protects a parent from testifying against their own child. A child does have the same Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination that any other person would have in those circumstances—but does a child always understand that or have adequate counsel to explain it to them?

In some cases, even if a child does not have materially significant information, she may be drawn into a confounding legal web. “Kids are subpoenaed by the prosecution because they really are on a fishing expedition,” Curry says. “They want to know what’s going on, so they subpoena the kids in and bring them into the office, and say, ‘Well, if you talk to us before you go to court, we might be able to get this to go away.’ Kids go in without lawyers. They answer all these kinds of questions, and then whatever happens happens.” Though prosecutors may simply be gathering evidence against the target child, for “a sibling, that could be traumatic,” says Curry. “The state has every right to subpoena whoever they want. They could technically subpoena anybody at any age.” Sometimes the non-offending sibling could even end up divulging incriminating information and being prosecuted, too.

The defense team may also involve a sibling, either as a fact witness to testify about what happened to exonerate her brother or sister or to serve as a character witness to try to mitigate the prosecution’s case. “Character witnesses are really hard because they get super cross-examined by the prosecutor,” Curry says. “I personally, for example, would be hesitant to put a child character witness up there, just because I think it’s harder for them to withstand cross-examination.”

But even if not required to do something as extreme as take the stand in court, siblings often play key roles in the investigations that help lawyers prepare for trial. Curry says that nine times out of 10, he asks siblings for information that would benefit the defense. “Investigation is one of the hardest things for the defense,” Curry says. “You got an entire police force that’s out talking to people that can investigate the state’s case. We have to figure out who will talk to us and who might know information, and family is often the first place we start.”

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The immediate and long-term impacts of the fragmented families, especially siblings, who are left behind when a young person is incarcerated are varied and profound. In The Sibling Effect, Jeffrey Kluger writes:

From the time we’re born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and our cautionary tales. They are our scolds, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counselors, sources of envy, objects of pride. They help us learn how to resolve conflicts and how not to; how to conduct friendships and when to walk away from them. Sisters teach brothers about the mysteries of girls; brothers teach sisters about the puzzle of boys. Bigger sibs learn to nurture by mentoring little ones; little sibs learn about wisdom by heeding the older ones.

On any given day, 54,000 juvenile offenders are not living with their families because they are instead in one of the 696 youth-detention facilities across the United States. In an average year, 17,800 of them “are just awaiting their turn in court,” according to the Campaign for Youth Justice. But those are just the youth in the juvenile-justice system. In the adult criminal-court system, another 200,000 young people “are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated as adults.” That results in an average of 4,000 to 5,000 children sent to adult jails every day.

And in the shadows, behind all of those statistics, are the left-behind siblings—many of whom will experience incarceration as a kind of mutual sentence.