The children of offenders who are in prison bear the shame of “where’s your daddy?” That is a fact, and there is an outcry from many people that “non violent drug offenders” should not be incarcerated because it “separates the families” of these children, leaving their mothers to raise the children alone.
One such moving article, written by the child of an incarcerated seller of drugs is the following:
My father immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1970s. I was four years old when my dad went away, and my younger brother was two years old. He was convicted for trafficking in cocaine and sentenced to 15 years in prison.At the beginning of his absence, we maintained contact through letters, although I was not aware of where he was. Every time I wrote my father, I’d carefully write his department identification number, thinking that it was a code for an apartment complex mailbox, until my mom informed me that my dad was in prison.I began to cry, but even then I remember questioning my tears; what does it mean to be in prison? For any parent, breaking the news to a child that their father is in prison is difficult. At that age, I didn’t know what it meant; I just knew I wouldn’t be seeing any more of my dad. My father left my mom alone to raise seven children, which added a financial strain to the emotional distress. Upon his early release, he was deported back to Jamaica where he lives today.
I definitely understand this child’s feelings of being separated from her father, and the shame she must have felt when people asked about her dad’s whereabouts and what he did for a living. The question this raises for me, though, is if her father was engaged in selling cocaine as a way of “making a living” and contributing to the family financial coffers, what kind of father was he in the first place? Was he a positive role model for his children? Was his involvement in “non violent” crime beneficial to his children in any way? Was his presence in the family before his arrest positive on any level, even though he was not convicted for a “violent” crime? I think most of us know that the drug business is quite a violent way to make a living, even for low level dealers.
Is the “system” at fault for the separation of families because it arrests and incarcerates drug sellers or drug users, and separates them from their children? Or are the offenders who are selling and using drugs responsible for the separation from their families? Do responsible and nurturing parents sell drugs knowing that this may separate them from their families and have a very negative impact on their spouses and children?
While I deplore that there are over two million children who have one or both parents incarcerated in the US today, and that there is a higher level of black and Latino families for whom this is true than for white families, I don’t think that the system can be “blamed” for this. Drug use and sales are very high in our society today, and apparently more so in the black and Latino communities than in the Caucasian communities.
When I was a “kid” there was a possibility that a person could go to prison for up to fifty years for possession of a single marijuana joint. Now, marijuana in small amounts is semi-legal in some areas, yet growing it is still a long prison sentence except in areas where it has been semi-legalized for “medical purposes.” Society’s thinking concerning drugs, from the days of alcohol prohibition to today’s liquor stores on every street corner, to today’s laws concerning the possession and production of methamphetamine in home “labs” changes.
Drug use is thought of differently in different places and different eras, from a moral failing, to a disease state, yet, we know that the use of mind altering substances, from alcohol to methamphetamine is counter productive to being a successful member of society, and not just because it is illegal.
While I do not believe that a “little recreational use” of marijuana is equal to the damage done by the frequent use of methamphetamine or crack, or that the occasional consumption of a beer is equal to the damage done by the person who drinks a fifth of liquor per day, I do realize that anything that alters our consciousness can have very negative consequences.
I am also aware that prohibition of desired substances, be it alcohol, or methamphetamine is extremely difficult. The craving for these mind altering substances seems to be bred into our genetic make up, though in some people more than in others.
So, how do we stop the damage? Do we legalize all substances and tax and “control” them to some extent so that there is little or no “underground economy” in making and selling the substances, much as we have with alcohol? In taking the ‘Profit” out of producing and selling alcohol illicitly there are no longer thousands of “bootleggers” making and selling illegal and in some cases very dangerous alcohol. They were put out of business by legalization and lower priced booze being available. Yet, not without a price, since a person who consumes all the alcohol they want is still not a productive member of society, and people who have been raised by or married to an alcoholic can testify that there is definitely a price to be paid from having a family member drink “to excess.”
What if we made all drugs of all kinds legal and emptied the prisons of people who in the past were arrested for selling or making drugs? Would there be no price to society? Would children like the author of this article be better off or worse off with her father (and/or mother) just “using” instead of going to prison for selling or making such drugs? With the money society saved by not incarcerating these people would that money used to provide treatment for users be better spent?
Right now it is illegal for anyone under 21 (in most places, some 18) to buy or consume alcohol, or cigarettes, but we all know that with alcohol freely available that some kids start drinking in grade school, and many kids under 18 smoke cigarettes and even marijuana. So laws to keep kids from smoking and drinking are pretty close to futile as well, because even if substances are illegal, or illegal for some age groups, it is still going to be obtained and used by those who want it.
I wish I knew the answer to drug use in our society, drugs of all kinds, legal and illegal. I don’t claim to. I do know, however, that prohibition of drug use is a miserable failure in our country today. I also know that use of drugs by parents makes them poor parents and poor role models as well.
It is a fact, when parents go to prison, children suffer…but are the suffering because the parent went to prison, or because the parent put themselves in such a position to do illegal and/or immoral things that resulted in them going to prison in the first place? Were these people “good parents” before they went to prison? Are the kids better off without that parent in their lives on a day to day basis? Even if their crime was “non violent drug offenses?” My personal opinion is that parents who willfully and knowingly engage in illegal activities of any kind are not putting their children first, and when we have children, we take on the responsibility to put the needs of those young children first in our lives, and that means not engaging in behavior that will separate us from them.