An often overlooked fact of mass incarceration is that many first-time, nonviolent offenders who receive prison sentences are parents. There are 2.7 million American children with a parent behind bars, and Black children are 7.5 times more likely to have a parent behind bars than their white counterparts. The experience of having a parent in prison is traumatizing to a child: a new study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that the incarceration of a parent can have as much impact on a child’s well-being as abuse or domestic violence.
So this Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, in an effort to raise awareness of the impact of mass incarceration, we’ve partnered with NGOs on Love Letters: a series of videos that contain children’s messages of love for a mother or father in prison. These digital love letters are demonstrations of the unbreakable love between parent and child, and of the pain of growing up without a parent present.
The videos reveal a side of mass incarceration that many people don’t get a chance to see. They allow us to bear witness, to be proximate to the very human costs of incarceration. Before I joined Google, I spent years as a human rights lawyer working on criminal justice reform. When I visited women’s prisons, I saw how broken women prisoners were because almost all were mothers to small children. Few received visits from family or children because of how remote women’s prisons usually are. When children did visit, some weren’t allowed to hug or touch their mothers. I also visited detention centers for girls, where many were the daughters of incarcerated mothers. The girls had been trafficked or arrested for running away from group homes or abusive foster placements, and they shared with me the pain of not having a mother there to teach them and protect them.
The impact of mass incarceration is generational and devastating. I hope that after watching these videos, you’ll choose to learn more about the critical work organizations like The Osborne Association, Hour Children, and Google.org grantees Essie Justice Group, the Ella Baker Center and the Equal Justice Initiative are doing to support children affected by incarceration and to advance criminal justice reform. You can also learn more about mass incarceration on vera.org and contribute to the conversation with #LoveLetters on social media.