The Background and Impact of Family Separation caused by the U.S Carceral State

Blog by Nia Kaudo

Fathers and Children Together by Ernel Martinez. Photo by Steve Weinik.
Fathers and Children Together by Ernel Martinez. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Over the past decade, awareness has helped put pressure on state and federal law enforcement, legislative officials, and correctional staff to reduce the number of people in bondage in 21st Century America. An under-discussed facet of the carceral state is the merciless damage it inflicts upon black families in the United States. As the American carceral state becomes more of a salient issue in the international community, literature examining its effects on family structures has gained popularity. The strategic assault on black families in America has persisted in different forms for centuries and must be understood as a stratagem to preserve systems of bondage and subordination, as well as the authority of powerful tyrants.

Michelle Alexander famously stated in her book The New Jim Crow that in 1850 fewer black people were enslaved in the United States than are “under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole” today.1 This fact shocked many citizens, who had yet to conceptualize the scope of the growing carceral state. Since the publication of that groundbreaking text and an accompanying interest in the overwhelmingly complex and issue of mass incarceration, the world has seen more vocal advocates materialize. Alexander uses the example of Ruffin v. Commonwealth, which she claims “put to rest any notion that convicts were legally distinguishable from slaves.2 Mass incarceration as it stands today has become a heavily researched topic, likely resulting from the historical parallels tying its impacts to that of slavery. An aspect of the expansive system that is left relatively unexplored is the effects it has on the black family unit, where the absences and pressures on parents created difficulties in maintaining close relationships.

The role of black men in the carceral state is a complex one. As a result of the disproportionate population of black male inmates the greatest number of incarcerated parents are fathers.3 This particular practice of removing black males from their families and communities was paramount in devastating the family units, restricting the opportunities of mothers tasked with raising children alone, and creating a dependency on the patrimonial American state.

Black women are also subjected to incarceration at rates that exceed any other demographic in the United States. The majority of women incarcerated in the United States are convicted of non-violent offenses such as drug related charges. In cases of violent crime, studies have found the crimes are usually associated with abusive relationships. Since the beginning of the War on Drugs more black women have fallen victim to its reckless systematic oppression than any other group of people. The increased incarceration rates have had such a profound impact on black women that “the War on Drugs has been described as a war against black women”.4 Looking at the War on Drugs from an objective viewpoint presents issues that should concern all ethical American citizens. Covington found that “separation from and concern about the well-being of their children are among the most damaging aspects of prison for women”.5 Incarcerated mothers experience painful emotional and psychological effects behind prison walls having limited to no knowledge of their childrens’ condition.

Many incarcerated mothers also face familial disconnects with their children prior to prison, which is enhanced by the physical separation. The original disconnect can be a result of different things including but not limited to: the mothers’ need to work often to support the family, drug use, the mothers’ neglect of the children stemming from their own abuse during childhood, or even a partner creating a void in the relationship. This is made more difficult for mothers inside of prisons or jail; because there are fewer female jails and prisons it is hard for families to have extensive or frequent visits. Many incarcerated black Americans have extended families to take in their children upon a parent’s arrest. However, in cases when they don’t and a mother in incarcerated there can be devastating effects on the family structure, as some children are sent to foster care. The sad truth is that an estimated 20 to 30 percent of children in the foster care system have incarcerated mothers.6 Even after being released from prison, mothers face challenges with seeing their children, because of strained relationships with caseworkers as child welfare regulations threaten to sever forever the ties of mothers to their children”.7 It would be naïve to not acknowledge the clear correlation between the absence of their mothers and the emotional damage, hardships, and cycles of children in foster care.

Some of the most devastatingly compelling accounts of children implicated in this system arise from the last time they saw their parents are free citizens. Children who witness the apprehension of their parents by police are marred by the experience as 16-year-old Davida’s haunting memory of her father’s arrest illustrates: “he pushed them off and ran through the front door, so I ran behind him…They didn’t see us. My father, they came and pulled my father from under the car and started beating him.”8 These events are ingrained in both the minds of the children and the parent, who are both forced to recognize their powerlessness.

Today the role of surrogate, which is often undertaken by grandmothers, is essential to holding together the fragmented family units left behind. Mothers of incarcerated men and women bear many responsibilities when their children are removed from the family and sent off. They often act as caretakers for their grandchildren, financial and emotional support systems, and a source of hope and motivation. They are also often tasked with facilitating communications between their kids and the outside world. Societies and communities must step up to fill voids left by parents, who have been targeted by a discriminatory criminal justice system.

The weight and ambiguity of loss in a carceral society is striking for those implicated. L. Alex Swan writes in Families of Black Prisoners, that partners experience intense frustration “when they are not given any explanation of the sentence or advance notification as to which prison their husbands will be sent”.9 Incarcerated citizens face difficulties reconnecting or maintaining contact with families they were separated from. . Today most correctional facilities are far from cities, where the majority of arrests take place, so family members are routinely sent far away. These limitations reinforce the powerlessness of families dealing with a member’s incarceration. Families entangled in the carceral state are subjected to the total authority and discretion of those in charge and their benefactors, which effectively distorts familial relationships as well.

According to Prisoners Once Removed “policy makers and public officials have paid little attention to how the annual removal and return of hundreds of thousands of adults ̶ many of whom are parents   ̶ affect the families and communities left behind”.10 The corrections officers who facilitate the carceral state possess a unique opportunity to act as allies to incarcerated people, helping them to contact family members or survive daily in the dangerous environment, but they can also abuse the power of their position to further subjugate incarcerated people. Their roles are directly responsible for preserving the institution of mass incarceration, especially considering the facilities act as a major staple for rural economies. Though these operatives are humans who are cognizant of the important role of familial support, specifically adults’ rights to be joined in marriage, they are silent about the detriments the carceral state has on these relationships. This sad truth is exemplified by the flagrant disregard by the general public about this phenomenon that affects millions of American children and adults every day.

As bondage in the United States has regenerated itself to fit contemporary objectives and societal attitudes, so has the necessity of controlling, limiting, and devastating family ties through forced separation. There is no disguising the strategic methods used to curtail progress for black Americans by means of sustained oppressive mechanisms. Historical tactics such as legally enforced servitude, humiliating and unnecessary brutality, and the separation of families has cemented centuries of oppression driven pain into black communities throughout the country. However, resilience, innovative procedures to preserve familial ties and dedicated advocates have pushed back unremittingly. As Swan accurately surmised nearly 35 years ago, “If the community is powerless in and of itself, there is no way for it to transfer power to its members”.11 Therefore the reclamation of the power and displays of unapologetic autonomy are the first steps in binding the broken black family units and communities throughout America.



1Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, 2012), 180.

2Alexander, New Jim Crow, 30.

3Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul, “Prisoners Once Removed: The Children and Families of Prisoners,” in Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, And Communities ed. Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul (The Urban Institute, 2003), 4.

4Barbara Bloom and Marilyn Brown, “Incarcerated Women: Motherhood on the Margins,” in Jodie Michelle Lawston and Ashley E. Lucus, eds., Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, and Artist (Albany: S.U.N.Y Press, 2011), 52.

5Stephani S. Covington, “A Woman’s Journey Home: Challenges for Female Offenders,” in Prisoners once removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities, ed. Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul (Washington DC: The Urban Institute, 2003), 76.

6Brown and Bloom, “Incarcerated Women: Motherhood on the Margins,” 58.

7Brown and Bloom, “Incarcerated Women: Motherhood on the Margins,” 61.

8Donald Braman and Michele Wood, “From One Generation to the Next: How Criminal Sanctions Are Reshaping Family Life in Urban America,” in Prisoners Once Removed: The Impact of Incarceration and Reentry on Children, Families, and Communities, ed. Jeremy Travis and Michelle Waul (Washington DC: The Urban Institute, 2003), 157

9Llewelyn Alex Swan, Families of Black Prisoners: Survival and Progress (Boston: GK Hall, 1981), 142.

10Travis and Wall “Prisoners Once Removed: The Children and Families of Prisoners,” 2.

11Swan, Families, 146.

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