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[COMMENTARY] Prison Policy Reform Should Center Families

[COMMENTARY] Prison Policy Reform Should Center Families

Last month, Andra Day won a Golden Globe for portraying the iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday and is nominated for a coveted Best Actress Oscar. Holiday battled heroin and did prison time on drug charges. Despite being a beloved performer, she died young and profoundly alone.

Today, we know that the most important factor in beating addiction and incarceration is family support.

Unfortunately, families’ contributions are routinely overlooked in policy conversations about criminal justice reform. Despite growing momentum to combat racial inequities and end mass incarceration, we’re still missing this central piece.

Contrast Billie’s story with that of Molly, a single mother who had gone to prison six times on drug convictions. To recover her life, she needed to succeed where she’d only failed before. That meant staying clean, repairing frayed relationships, and finding an employer willing to overlook her lengthy criminal record.

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Molly’s mother, Claire (not their real names), was determined to help her daughter. She chased job leads and looked for a nearby addiction recovery support group. Soon after Molly got out of prison, Claire found Molly work as a local laundromat janitor. While Molly mopped floors and attended recovery classes, Claire watched the kids; while she did the family’s laundry, Claire checked in with her daughter’s supervisor.

Two years later, Molly is still sober. She moved on to washing and folding laundry and then into a managerial role. The key to her success? A committed family.

Like Molly, 5 out of 6 previously incarcerated Americans will be arrested within a decade of exiting prison—nearly half of those within the first year. Returned citizens—a more humanizing term than “ex-cons”—face any number of challenges when starting over; financial stress, lack of transportation, added parental responsibilities, lingering addictions, and licensing and employment. A single misstep can lead back to square one: another arrest and more prison time.

I’ve worked with incarcerated people and their families for 35 years, and I’ve seen the cycle repeat over and over. I’ve also seen how families break it.

Committed families do what parole officers and rehabilitation programs can’t, creating the necessary sense of stability and belonging that returned citizens need to move forward. Like Molly’s mom, they leverage their social networks, making introductions and vouching for their returned loved ones to prospective employers—or maybe they have a job to offer. They give rides, run errands, and share the burden of childcare.

Sometimes moral support is the most valuable. And it’s just as essential during incarceration. Studies show that prisoners who maintain close contact with family are far more likely to succeed upon reentry. Family members provide crucial accountability and encouragement, often becoming the sole reason that those behind bars turn their lives around.

But families can’t maintain this level of emotional and practical support unless they also receive it. They need money to pay for exorbitant phone calls to inmates and transportation to visit loved ones at distant facilities. Caregivers need resources to nurture and provide for kids. Children with incarcerated parents also need psychosocial support, academic mentorship, and opportunities to cultivate budding gifts and vocational interests.

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New prison reform efforts like the First Step Act, passed in 2018, aimed to curb mandatory minimum sentencing, offer prisoners pathways to early release, and increase rehabilitative programs. Early in his presidency, Joe Biden has moved to end federal reliance on private prisons. Although neither initiative goes far enough, these faint stirrings of progress are welcome.

Until policymakers see families as integral to the solution, they will continue misdirecting funds and backing expensive programs that fall short of the desired outcome. Meanwhile, the families of the incarcerated will be left to “do time on the outside.”

The Biden administration and local decision-makers can take a few immediate steps to make families central in criminal justice reform.

  • First, bring families to the table. Committees exist at multiple levels of government to plan and aid prisoners’ reentry. While business leaders, legal experts, and even returned citizens might sit on these councils, the family members of inmates are rarely invited—despite having a front-row seat to the challenges of reintegration.
  • Second, allocate more federal funding to grassroots organizations serving prisoners’ families. Not only is too little government aid available for families, but many won’t approach government agencies for help due to mistrust or a sense of stigma. A grandmother who needs food assistance for her household, for instance, might not apply for food stamps—but she likely will accept relief from a neighborhood church or other local nonprofit.
  • Third, create a federal task force to study the role of families in reentry. Ideally, this would be co-chaired by an affected family member or a returned citizen or spearheaded by an experienced grassroots organization.

If we want to see lives and communities restored, it’s time to leverage our most powerful tool for change: the family.

About the contributor:

Sandra Barnhill is an attorney and founder and CEO of Foreverfamily (formerly AIM-Aid to Children of Imprisoned Mothers), a 34-year-old nonprofit that strengthens the bonds between children and their incarcerated parents. She is also an Encore Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

(Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
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