While it is widely recognized that New York's drug laws have had a significant impact on families, no state-based statistics have been published that help measure the nature and extent of that impact. For example, neither the New York State Department of Correctional Services (hereinafter the Department of Correctional Services) nor any other state agency tracks the number of children who have parents in prison, much less the number of children who have parents in prison serving sentences for drug offenses. The need for such data has added importance in light of the ongoing public debate over the costs and benefits of the state's drug laws and the need for reform.
In this report, Human Rights Watch presents the first statistics on the state's incarcerated drug offender parents and their children. Our figures were derived from Department of Correctional Services data on drug offenders and from a 1997 survey of a representative sample of New York prison inmates conducted for the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) of the U.S. Department of Justice (the 1997 survey).14 As explained in more detail in Appendix 1, while the statistics presented in this report are illuminating, they are best understood as estimates because of the limitations in the data with which we were working. While we are reasonably confident of the reliability of most of the statistics presented here, the numbers for female prisoners should be approached with caution because of the small size of the female subsample on which they were based.
Number of Drug Offender Parents and Children
As shown in Table 1, a total of 57.9 percent of prisoners reported in the 1997 survey that they were parents of children under the age of 18, with a higher number of women (64.1 percent) reporting children than men (57.5 percent).
Applying these percentages to the 17,741 men and 1,423 women incarcerated at the end of 2001 on drug charges, we calculate there are an estimated 11,113 drug offenders in New York prisons who are parents of children.15
Table 2 shows the family size reported by New York inmates in the 1997 survey.
Table 2: Size of Families Reported by Prisoners
Using the reported family size and applying it to currently incarcerated drug offenders, we calculate there are 23,537 children who have parents serving time in prison because of drug convictions, as shown in Table 3.
Table 3: Estimated Number of Children with Incarcerated Drug Offender Parents
We estimate also that there were 124,496 children who had a parent in New York prisons between 1980 and 2001 for drug offenses. During this period, there were 150,085 drug offender admissions to prison.16 Data on the number who were recidivists is not available. To minimize double counting individuals who were sent to prison more than once, we have reduced the total number of drug admissions during the twenty-one year period by 30 percent, leaving an estimated total of 105,059 individuals who were sent to prison during that period because of drug convictions.17 Assuming their average family size was the same as that reported by inmates in 1997 (Table 2), we estimate they had a total of 124,496 children (Table 4).
Table 4: Estimated Number of Children with Parents Incarcerated on Drug Charges, 1980-2001
Table 5: Percent of Prisoners Who Lived with Children Prior to Incarceration
When a parent is incarcerated, children may face dramatically changed family conditions, particularly if the incarcerated parent was the sole or primary caregiver. Table 6 identifies the current caregivers of children of incarcerated parents as reported by parent inmates in the 1997 survey. The survey data does not, however, indicated the extent to which their children's living arrangements differ from those prior to parental incarceration. A number of the mothers Human Rights Watch interviewed who had been incarcerated on drug charges told us that even before they were sent to prison, one or more of their children had been living with grandparents or other caregivers.
Table 6: Caregiver of Children of Incarcerated Parent*
*Detail may exceed 100% because some prisoners had multiple children living with multiple caregivers.
As shown in Table 6, most children of incarcerated fathers live with their mothers. While the incarceration of fathers may be less likely to precipitate new household arrangements-both because only half of the fathers lived with their children prior to incarceration and because the children of incarcerated fathers tend to remain with their mothers-their incarceration can nonetheless instigate a dramatic shift in family circumstances. The impact of a father's incarceration on his children's emotional or financial well-being can be particularly significant if he had played an active role in the family's life prior to his incarceration.
The sundering of families is particularly notable when a mother is incarcerated. Mothers in prison reported that relatively few of their children lived with their father. Half of the incarcerated mothers reported that their children were being cared for by grandparents. Almost one in five mothers reported that their children were in a foster home or under control of a child services agency.19 A small number of mothers who give birth while incarcerated are able to keep their children up to the age of eighteen months in one of New York's two prison nurseries (at Taconic and Bedford Hills).20
An unknown number of the children of incarcerated parents experience one or more changes in their caregiver during parental incarceration. For example, one mother serving time for selling cocaine told Human Rights Watch that her two oldest daughters were placed with four different foster families during the several years she was in prison.21
Where there are multiple children, parental incarceration often leads to the separation of the siblings, imposing additional emotional burdens on them. For example, one mother of three children was sent to prison for eleven and one half years for selling drugs, her two sons went to live with her sister, and her daughter went to her boyfriend's mother's house. The two sons were later taken from the sister and placed with separate foster-care parents.22
Some parents lose parental rights to their children while they are incarcerated, either voluntarily or involuntarily. We were unable to locate any New York statistics on the adoption of children with an incarcerated parent.
Most families of incarcerated drug offenders are relatively poor even prior to a parent's incarceration. The incarceration of a parent can mean the elimination of part of the household income, and can place the remaining caregiver and family in seriously strained circumstances. Substitute caregivers are also likely to have extremely limited financial resources, which are further taxed by new childcare expenses.23 Even apart from the financial implications, the lives of grandparents or other adults who find themselves responsible for caring for someone else's children are significantly affected by their new responsibilities. One grandmother taking care of the young son of an incarcerated drug offender told Human Rights Watch that she had just retired from the postal service and had planned to travel and enjoy the respite from work. Now she is "raising kids again and can't get away." A woman in her sixties, she takes the child to football games, school outings, and church, and "tries to keep him busy and off the streets." Describing her new life as a parent, she concluded, "I just do the best I can."24
Maintaining Family Connection
· Allow parents and children to maintain their existing relationship, which may also help the family to reunite upon the parents' release.
Despite the importance of visitation, children of parents incarcerated in New York do not visit their parents frequently. One-half of incarcerated parents reported that they are never visited.
Table 7: Frequency of Visits
Our research suggests that in some cases, children do not want to visit their parents. They are angry and turn their backs on them, or had little contact with them even before they were incarcerated. In other cases, incarcerated parents do not want their children to see them in a prison. But perhaps the single greatest impediment to visits is the distance of prisons from the children.
Most of New York's drug offenders come from the New York City area, and most of New York's prisons are located upstate, hundreds of miles away.27 More than half of incarcerated parents reported in 1997 that their prison was between 100 and 500 miles from their previous residence; almost one-in-five were more than 500 miles away. These distances pose significant travel costs in time and financial resources. Every Friday night, about 800 people, primarily women and children, board chartered buses and vans in New York City heading for upstate prisons.28 They face a long overnight journey, short visits with loved ones, and then the long return home. The Department of Correctional Service provides free buses, but there is such high demand that families can only get tickets every two or three months. The alternative is private vans, which cost about $50 round trip for an adult and $25 for a child.29
Table 8: Distance of Prison from Previous Residence
For children placed with foster parents, the frequency of visits is a key factor in determining whether the family will be reunited once the parent is released. Yet these children face additional obstacles to visits. Foster parents may lack the emotional commitment to undertake the time and expense of taking the children to visit their incarcerated parents themselves. Although child welfare workers are legally mandated to facilitate parent-child visits when such visits are not detrimental to the child, many feel that accompanying children to visit parents in prison is disproportionately time-consuming and hard to reconcile with other demands of their caseload. As a national study of the children of incarcerated offenders concluded:
Even when visits occur, they are not an unalloyed pleasure for the children. As one mother pointed out, young children cannot understand why they cannot stay with their mother-visits are like "giving a toddler a lollipop and then snatching it away."31 Another mother described the sadness in her children's faces when they leave the visiting room; each visit means another separation.
Table 10: Frequency of Telephone Contact
Telephone communication in some cases is limited because either the child or the parent does not want to talk to the other. As one mother told Human Rights Watch, her young children were so angry at her for leaving them that they refused to speak to her when she called.32 But the key reason calls are relatively infrequent may be their exorbitant cost.
Prison rules preclude inmates from receiving calls; they can only make them, and then only by calling collect using MCI WorldCom, the service provider with whom New York has an exclusive system-wide contract for inmate telephone services. The operator assisted station-to-station collect calls inmates must make are the most expensive type of telephone communication. In addition to high prices per minute of conversation, the mostly low-income families who want to communicate with inmates must also pay MCI a $3.00 surcharge for each call from an inmate, an amount far higher than other collect call connection fees.33 Prisoners are allowed a thirty-minute maximum per phone call; if they want to continue talking they must redial-and incur another surcharge. Inmates' families are not allowed to use other telephone service providers, nor are inmates permitted to use less expensive alternative telephone services, such as an inmate debit account system, telephone cards or a "1-800" system, even though those alternative systems would meet prison security concerns (e.g., preventing calls to unauthorized numbers).34 The high rates plus the surcharges render telephones prohibitively expensive as a way of maintaining close family contact. Family members describe telephone bills that can reach into hundreds of dollars, ultimately prompting the reluctant decision to cut back on calls that are an emotional mainstay for them as well as the inmates.
The surcharge for each call from an inmate is not related to the costs either MCI or the Department of Correctional Services incurs in operating the inmate phone system. Rather it functions as a revenue generator. Sixty percent of the funds go back to the Department of Correctional Services as a commission under the terms of the contract with MCI, and those funds are allocated to the department's so-called Family Benefit Fund. For fiscal year 2002-2003, $24 million is budgeted under that fund.35 About $350,000 is budgeted for the maintenance of phone lines and equipment. Three quarters of the fund-$18 million-is budgeted for inmate medical services, including $13 million for AIDS pharmaceuticals. Another $800,000 is budgeted for clothing for released inmates, and more than $400,000 for inmate television and movies. Five million dollar of the total $24 million is designated for programs that benefit inmate families-e.g., to underwrite buses coming to upstate prisons, nursery and pediatric staff, visitor centers, and inmate postage.
In essence, the state is using the prison telephone system to generate revenue that subsidizes selected expenses of the Department of Correctional Services. The state has argued that the correctional services department "may appropriately raise revenues" by imposing a "surcharge" on inmate telephone calls because the revenues are earmarked "for a legitimate penalogical objective."36 But there is no "penalogical" justification for raising revenue through onerous phone charges levied uniquely on family members and others who wish to talk with inmates. The state is responsible for holding prisoners in humane conditions, for providing for medical care, and for promoting their rehabilitation. While the telephone commission funds are put to good use, e.g., providing AIDS drugs, they are being used for activities that are that state's responsibility-and which should be funded by the public at large.
Table 11: Frequency of Mail Contact [Mail sent to or received by child(ren)]
14 The 1997 survey consisted of personal interviews of a nationally representative sample of state and federal prison inmates as well as a statistically representative sample of state inmates in three states-California, New York, and Texas. The survey obtained a wide range of information, including data on current offense, sentence, criminal history, family background, and personal characteristics. The statistics in this briefing were derived from an analysis of the New York sample. Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), "The Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 1997," http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/cgi/archive2.prl?num=2598&path=ICPSR (accessed May 17, 2002).
17 Data on the percentage of recidivists among drug offenders sent to prison each year since 1980 is not available. The Department of Correctional Services told Human Rights Watch that in recent years as many as 40 percent of drug offenders are repeat offenders, but that in previous years the figure was much lower. A breakdown of prison admissions between 1980 and 2001 by gender is not available.
19 When a single parent with custody of a child is incarcerated, the children may come under the jurisdiction of the Child Welfare Agency. The parent can either sign a voluntary consent to foster care placement, or the agency can make a finding of parental neglect or abandonment and secure placement. In either case, the foster care placement is court-approved, and the court will impose conditions for the parent to be able to regain custody of the child.
20 Mothers are allowed to keep infants at Bedford Hills or Taconic until the child is twelve months old, unless the mother is likely to be released before the child is eighteen months old. The two facilities have a total capacity of fifty-six infants.
23 See, e.g., Susan Phillips and Barbara Bloom, "In Whose Best Interest? The Impact of Changing Public Policy on Relatives Caring for Children with Incarcerated Parents," Child Welfare Journal Special Issue: Children with Parents in Prison, vol. 127, no.5 (1998).
26 Denise Johnston, "Parent-Child Visitation in the Jail or Prison," in Katherine Gabel and Denise Johnston, Eds. Children of Incarcerated Parents (New York: Lexington Books, 1995); and Human Rights Watch interview with Denise Johnston, Pasadena, California, January 31, 2000.
33 For example, the typical station-to-station connection toll for a collect call from Ulster County to New York City is $1.80. Yet MCI charges a $3.00 toll for station-to-station collect calls by inmates at the Eastern Correctional Facility in Ulster County to New York City.
34 Use of debit or 1-800 calling should not pose additional security risks. Like collect calls, they can be monitored, limited in time, and restricted to prevent third-party calls. See www.curenational.org/etc (accessed May 17, 2002) for information on the National Campaign to Promote Equitable Telephone Charges. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, for example, permits inmates to use a debit card system.