July 28, 2009
The New York Times recently told the story of Herbert Rashad Scott. At age 20 he was awaiting sentencing for drug possession and robbery. On top of that, his girlfriend was pregnant.
Scott’s unborn child had something that other children of offenders don’t: a chance to be with a dad. Scott was offered an alternative to prison—supervised probation and attendance at a job preparation class. Scott told the Times that he wanted to “be there” for his child and teach him that “that jail ain’t no place to be.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to have been enough. After speaking to the Times, he missed a drug test and did not report to his probation officer as required. Now, he faces three years behind bars. And his child will, in very real ways, suffer along with him.
Scott’s story is, unfortunately, too familiar. The Department of Justice estimates that, at any given time, more than 1.5 million children have a parent in prison; 90 percent of the time, it’s their dad.
Contrary to popular expectations, half of these fathers lived with their children prior to their incarceration, and 40 percent maintained weekly contact with children after they were locked up.
As our society has locked more people up—2.3 million people today—what has been called the “intergenerational transfer of problems” associated with having a parent in prison have greatly increased.
Some of these problems are what you would expect. Kids with incarcerated parents are more likely to “exhibit physically aggressive behaviors,” such as fighting and vandalism than those whose parents aren’t locked up.
There are the less visible effects, however. The children of prisoners are more vulnerable to feelings of social isolation, depression, and anxiety.
Truth is, to have a parent in prison makes you more likely to experience the worst of problems: dropping out of school, unwed pregnancy, and, of course, being arrested and jailed yourself.
Since our society really doesn’t know what to do with prisoners besides simply warehousing them, it should not come as a surprise that it has no idea what to do with their children. Very few people have thought about, much less worked on, the unique problems and needs of the children of prisoners.
One exception is Prison Fellowship’s Angel Tree. The most visible part of the program is the gifts church volunteers give the prisoners’ kids at Christmas. But it’s about a lot more than presents.
Angel Tree is about reconciliation—reconciling children with their incarcerated parents and reconciling them to God their Father, after whom every family is named. The relationship starts with a gift, but it doesn’t end there.
Our goal in Angel Tree is a year-round relationship with that child, through a local church, that includes mentors and opportunities like summer camp. Our vision and desire is to reunite transformed offenders with their transformed families and, thus, end this “intergenerational transfer of problems” called the cycle of crime that has left so many children without hope.
Parents, despite the best of intentions, can’t always be there for their kids. The Church has been called to stand in the gap at those times—and one of those times is now. Consider joining us there. Visit Angel Tree’s website, AngelTree.org, to find out how you can get involved.
Note: This commentary delivered by PFM President Mark Earley.
Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.