The Other Side of the New Jim Crow: Students With Incarcerated Parents

by Kathy Pierre

Kathy Pierre
Kathy Pierre is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Florida. She has written and worked for the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and USA Today College. Her passion is in sharing the stories that often go untold. Find her on Twitter at @SimplyKathyyy.

Soaring incarceration rates have left their mark on the Black community, destroying the lives of many Black men and women and weakening neighborhood cohesion and voting power. Many stories of imprisonment start with a predictable history of a father or mother who was also imprisoned. But one of the underreported populations affected by parental incarceration are the students who actually find a way to college. Although they are considered the success stories, Black college students with incarcerated parents face struggles of their own.  

Tonika Jones was in the spring semester of her sophomore year at the University of Florida, working as a volunteer for the Jimmy Carnes Indoor Track and Field Meet and resetting the bar for collegiate pole vaulters from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. After a long day of working with very limited access to her cell phone, she returned missed calls from her mother.

Jones, the youngest of two by 17 years, grew up with both her parents in a small town closely surrounded by extended family. Jones’ mother has worked at the local community college as an administrative assistant  for 24 years and her father worked at the local paper mill. He played an active role in helping their tight-knit community. He built a wheelchair ramp for an older neighbor across the street, repaired things for neighbors, tended to yards and the homes of her grandparents. He often paid unemployed community members to do small tasks around the neighborhood.

“Last night, he got pulled over for not having a license,” Jones remembers her mother telling her.

Her father had been arrested and was being held in the county jail.

She didn’t get to see him before he began serving nine months on a charge related to driving with a suspended license.

Black people constitute more than 40 percent of the incarcerated population, while only making up 13 percent of the general population, according to the NAACP. What’s lost in those statistics is the effect that the incarcerations have on the families of incarcerated people, specifically their children. According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated (NRCCFI), 11 percent of Black children in the United States have an incarcerated parent. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice found that 70 percent of children in America with at least one parent in prison or jail will end up incarcerated themselves and are five times more likely than their peers to commit crimes.

He was a drug dealer, but at the end of the day, he was my daddy. tweet


In spite of the stress and different pressures that come from being a child of an incarcerated parent, many of these children break from that path and make it through college. Children and young adults with household members in prison are classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as experiencing “adverse childhood experience” because of the unique and difficult stresses involved. The children who make it to and through college face different emotional and financial traumas than other college students; pressures unique to having a parent incarcerated.

“If you look at the whole college population, it’s really hard for the poor child or the kid who’s the first in his family to go to college. When you lay on top of it the incarceration of a parent, it’s worse,” says Sandra Enos, an associate professor of sociology at Bryant University and author of Mothering from the Inside: Parenting in a Women’s Prison. “It’s a lot when students have to confront these things in middle-class institutions like college.”

According to Enos, children of incarcerated parents have added stress compared to other children and tend to end up taking on “adult” roles when their parents aren’t fulfilling them. “They have to worry about things and take on things that their friends don’t have to,” Enos says. Some of those roles include matters of family finance, which put often struggling students in even more precarious situations.

Jones received a full ride scholarship in undergrad, which lessened the financial burden on her family, especially with all of the initial, smaller purchases her freshman year like an iron. However, she remembers a time when her mother’s car needed four new tires and she used some of her scholarship refund money to help pay for them. “If there was a time when [my father] went to jail, I would have to help my mom with bills,” she says.

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Credit: Sidney and Company

Credit: Sidney and Company

There are people and organizations working to assist these students with incarcerated parents. Yasmine Arrington, a recent graduate of Elon University, founded ScholarCHIPS for Children of Incarcerated Parents during her junior year of high school as a response to a LearnServe International challenge to fix a problem that bothered her in her community.

Arrington, a 22-year-old daughter of an incarcerated father, didn’t create the scholarship fund because of her own financial difficulties. In her scholarship search she and her grandmother kept a running calendar of deadlines of scholarships she qualified for. The idea for ScholarCHIPS came when Arrington’s grandmother searched for different scholarships and noticed that there were awards for children with deceased parents or parents in the military but there weren’t any for students with an incarcerated parent.

“I did some research and found that approximately 2.7 million kids have an incarcerated parent,” Arrington notes.

ScholarCHIPS is in its third year of awarding scholarships and currently funds 18 scholars. Arrington always makes sure her scholars know she is a resource to them, having just gone through the journey of getting her bachelor’s degree herself. Her scholars tend to feel more comfortable with her and seem to tell her things more quickly than they would their parents, Arrington says. They have confided problems with courses, wanting to leave school, and other personal problems.

“I’m passionate about it. I’m passionate about the people,” she says. “Their stories sometimes seem heartbreaking but if you look at the students, they’re still trying to find ways to make things better.”

She envisions ScholarCHIPS growing into a national organization with chapters and centers with mentoring, test help and student support. The scholarship fund will continue to aid its scholars in their access to education, mentoring and a support system. “The goal is to do as much as we can to help these young people succeed,” she says. “I always tell people it’s a part of my purpose.”

According to the NRCCFI, there are only five other organizations, aside from ScholarCHIPS, with scholarship funds specifically for children with incarcerated parents. Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, says that this is a sign of progress because five or six years ago, there was only one such scholarship fund.

“People assumed for years that this is not necessarily a college-bound group,” she says. “Some of the scholarship programs being developed now are developed by children of incarcerated parents.”

Adalist-Estrin sees the shift occurring away from putting money into anti-drug and incarceration programs for children and towards scholarship funds and resources for higher education. Scholarship assistance is the third most popular request that the NRCCFI receives, following requests for effective practices and training for dealing with children with incarcerated parents.

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But finances aren’t the only struggle that students with incarcerated parents face. One sophomore at Sewanee University of the South speaking under condition of anonymity, almost saw college slip from his grasp because of his father’s arrest. During his junior year of high school, his father was arrested for a violent crime and sentenced to two years in prison.

The stress took a toll on him, causing him to get three C’s during the first semester of his senior year, the time when many high school students submit their transcripts for college applications.

“I didn’t expect to get into the schools I got into because of what happened with my grades,” the student says. He had to send in an explanation to two of the colleges he applied to, detailing what caused his grades to plummet so rapidly.“It was kind of good that this happened when I was going to college because it made me realize that things happen in real life and this is real life,” he says.

Recidivism, when a person suffers a relapse into criminal behavior, often after serving time in a correctional capacity, is another problem that tends to impact the children of incarcerated parents. The Bureau of Justice found in 2005 that over two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners were rearrested in the three years following release and over three quarters were arrested again within five years.

In turn, recidivism degrades the effectiveness of prison as a deterrent. Enos says that not only do “career criminals” become accustomed to prison, but their families get used to them being in prison and learn to cope without them, making the harsh sentencing policies ineffective. “We, as researchers and public policy-makers, do a huge disservice on focusing on the individual and not the family when sentencing,” Enos says.

Jones, a recent University of Florida alumna, is currently enrolled in a Master’s degree program. She calculates that her father spent about eight years incarcerated as the result of seven different arrests. After her father got out of prison the first time, he got a job and transitioned to a life at home with his family. Things changed with the Great Recession. He was injured on the job and was laid off because of his injury. He worked odd jobs but wasn’t able to sustain his family through them. He found more success supporting his family through selling drugs and individual or packaged cigarettes, supplemented by selling cups of ice and liquor in the neighborhood.

After serving his nine month sentence during her sophomore year, he returned to prison during her junior year for about 10 months, on another charge related to driving with a suspended license. By the time Jones’ father began serving that sentence she felt the stress but she had already adjusted to him being incarcerated.

“I wouldn’t say that I became numb to it, but in a sense I kind of was.”

Throughout the Sewannee student’s childhood educational experience, he says his father was an activist for equal education for all three of his sons. However, his father missed his high school graduation and still has not been to Sewanee to see the campus or visit him. They maintain open communication with each other, mostly through letters, but he noticed throughout his two years of college, there was no network, resources or support group for him.

“There’s nothing like, ‘Here’s how to go to college as a student with an incarcerated parent,’” he says. “It’s very stigmatized.”

Ann Adalist-Estrin works to end that stigma and provide students support. She teaches an undergraduate course at Rutgers called “Children and Families of the Incarcerated.” When she began teaching, she had 12 students. The class grew to 60 students last semester. Usually the composition of student majors within the class is psychology, sociology or criminology majors, but when she sees other majors, like fine arts or journalism, her first assumption is that the student is the child of an incarcerated parent. In her current class of 60 students, about 25 of them have an incarcerated parent.

“It adds to the class when they can give personal input,” she says.

In one class session, they discussed legal recommendations for arresting parents in front of their kids. One student raised his hand and shared his story of being 3 years old, having the police burst through the front door and ask him where his dad was. He told the police, “He’s in the closet.” The police arrested his father.

The student grew up feeling like his father’s arrest was his fault.

Yasmine Arrington didn’t have a significant relationship with her father until she was 13. Arrington started writing to her father while he served a six-year sentence in prison. He was released shortly after her high school graduation and they were able to maintain consistent communication for her first two years of college, until he began getting in legal trouble again. Because of that, Arrington says that communication has been “on and off” depending on whether or not he’s in trouble with his probation officer or if he’s being held in the county jail. He also often changes his phone number or doesn’t have regular access to a phone.

“It wasn’t daily, but it’s been consistent,” Arrington says. “He’s been in and out (of jail) all my life and still is now.”

Credit: Sidney and Company

Credit: Sidney and Company

She says she felt the effects of having her father missing from her life the most when she was younger and heard her classmates talking about their fathers and their relationships. “When it does affect me most is when I’m going through relationship troubles or confusion with males,” she says. “That’s one thing I’ve missed and I’ve always missed.” When Arrington was able to talk to her father about her relationship questions, she says it was some of the clearest, best advice she had ever gotten.

Tonika Jones likens her relationship with her father to a long-distance relationship because communication is all they have. “He’s not super emotional, so I guess he doesn’t convey his emotions well, so I guess there’s a lack of emotional support,” she says. Even as a child, Jones never felt like her father was a bad person.

“Me going to college and being college-aged and him not being able to support us, he did what he had to do,” Jones says. “He was a drug dealer, but at the end of the day, he was my daddy.”

Jones’ mother served as the bearer of bad news again in October: Her father received a two-year sentence.

“This is something that does have an effect on me, but it’s not my problem,” Jones says. “I can’t let it get me down, I can’t let it distract me from what I’m doing. It wouldn’t make things any better if I fall off.”

Jones graduated in early December, but didn’t get to speak to her father again until after Christmas. She is scheduled to graduate with her master’s degree in recreation, parks and tourism in May of 2016.

Her father is scheduled to be released in late 2016.

About the Authors:
Published by Kathy Pierre
Kathy Pierre is a recent journalism graduate from the University of Florida. She has written and worked for the Independent Florida Alligator, the Gainesville Sun and USA Today College. Her passion is in sharing the stories that often go untold. Find her on Twitter at @SimplyKathyyy. View all posts by Kathy Pierre


  1. Riley Pierce

    A really interesting and thought provoking read. Currently working on a Mass Incarceration unit in my college English class, so I’ll try and share this around as much as I can.

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