“My dad is great.”
What’s his name?
Tell me a bit about him. What did you like to do together?
“I liked to play. Sometimes he would let me go out to the street [in the neighborhood], or with my mom, or he would play with me.”
Why don’t you play with Bernardo anymore?
“Because he’s in prison”
Horacio, 8 years-old, Brazil
Horacio, is eight years old and lives in a favela – shanty town – of São Paulo, Brazil. His voice was collected as part of a Latin America-focused effort to make visible the impact of punitive drug policies and imprisonment on Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP).
The voices of 70 CIP between 7 and 17 years old from eight countries – Brazil, Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia and Dominican Republic – are the core drive and basis of a new report, Childhood that matters. The impact of drug policy on children of incarcerated parents in Latin American and the Caribbean, published by Church World Service (Buenos Aires Regional Office) and Gurises Unidos (Uruguay).
Drug offenses are the main cause of the prison crisis in Latin America, leading to overcrowding, violence and appalling prison conditions. The use of pre-trial detention, disproportionate sentences and the obstacles or legal prohibition to the implementation of alternatives to incarceration for drug offenses contribute to this trend.
The numbers are particularly striking in the case of women: even though women represent a low percentage of the general prison population (about 6.6% at the regional level), drug offenses underlie the growing incarceration of this segment of the population: in Panama, for example, 31% of men vs 70% of women are in prison for drug offenses; in Costa Rica, 28.2% are incarcerated for drug offenses, whereas 68.6% of women are in the same situation. The United Nations Bangkok Rules provide guidance on how alternatives to incarceration should be applied in the case of women accused of minor, non-violent offences, especially if they are pregnant or the main or sole care-takers of small children; both are traits shared by the majority of women incarcerated for drug offences.
The Bangkok Rules have not been translated into practice. On the contrary, the significant consequences of the incarceration of parents or primary carers of children have not been taken into account. Childhood that matters offers findings, reflections and proposals that contribute to understanding the impacts of drug policies, expand on what we mean by “gender and incarceration” and adopt a truly child-centric approach to debates and public policies that directly or indirectly affect children, in line with article 3 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in which the ‘best interests of the child’ principle is enshrined.
The report provides an in depth quantitative analysis and finds that in 25 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean there are approximately 1,583,062 and 1,970,699 girls, boys and young people with an imprisoned mother or father. Around 21%, or between 346,571 and 423,409, are children with parents incarcerated for drug offenses.
This estimate is by its very nature a conservative one, since children can have other primary caregivers that are not their parents in prison (siblings, uncles, grandparents, etc.) and have adolescent parents that have not been taken into account in these statistics.
The report found that children of incarcerated parents are made invisible by drug policies, and their rights are not taken into account either by the judiciary system or by public policies.
Within the collective group, Children of Incarcerated Parents (CIP), we must, then, always remember the individuality of every story but also identify sub-group differences. These groups are, at least, the following:
- children and youth who live outside the prison and visit regularly;
- children and youth who live outside the prison and do not visit;
- girls and boys who live within the prison, generally with their mothers;
- children who move out of prison;
- CIP with mothers and fathers in institutionalized isolation;
- transnational CIP;
- CIP with caretakers under alternative measures to incarceration; and
- CIP with underage caretakers within the penal system.Furthermore, we shall include
- CIP with referents on life sentence and
- CIP whose referents are on death sentence.
The report’s main conclusions are:
Many CIP are exposed to multiple forms of violence, as well as to situations of social exclusion that are reinforced with the incarceration of a caretaker. CIP are made invisible by drug policies, and their rights are not taken into account either by the judiciary system or by public policies.
Furthermore, the implementation of punitive drug policies directly impacts the increasing number of children with incarcerated parents in general. It particularly affects the children we refer to as “transnational CIP” — children who live in a different country than the one in which their caretaker is detained, or those who are born and/or grow up in the country where their parent (usually their mother) is detained instead of the country where their extended family lives.
Community and schools can provide CIP with support and opportunities. However, stigma and discrimination associated with drug cases are often reproduced.
CIP express their desire for change, but, without comprehensive public policies focused on children, they may find themselves repeating their caregivers’ stories and circumstances.
And finally, a gender perspective needs to be urgently incorporated into research on incarceration and its impacts. This must include a comprehensive understanding of gender, that also looks at the relationships between fathers and children and the gender-based differential impacts of incarceration on CIP.
The study ends with 38 recommendations that cover: Comprehensive policies directed toward children; Generation of information; and Children of Incarcerated Parents and the criminal justice system. All our recommendations seek to present a child-centric and responsible focus and can be found in the regional study.
Photo credit: (c) Marisa Montes