Prison-to-Prison Pipeline Keeps Black Men and Their Families Behind Bars

04/27/2015 11:44 am ET | Updated Jun 27, 2015

The New York Times has finally noticed. Something is seriously wrong with American society. Black men are missing. They are dying young. They are going to jail. According to a Times report, in New York City alone, "almost 120,000 black men between the ages of 25 and 54 are missing from everyday life." Nationally the figure is 1.5 million Black men.

The killing of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina by police officer Michael Slager is just one of the latest incidents of White police officers killing unarmed Black men. After a traffic stop, Scott ran from his car and Slager shot him in the back eight times. Scott's decision to run from the police exposed a major legal injustice in the United States. Poor men, especially poor Black men, are repeatedly sent to jail for failure to pay child support, not because they do not want to, but because they can't. In jail they lose their jobs, fall even further into debt, and enter the prison-to-prison pipeline.

Walter Scott had already been jailed for two weeks before because of failure to make child support payments and he lost good jobs. Two years ago, when his child support payments were in arrears for about $8,000, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Because of late fees and interest he now owed $18,000 and faced jail time again and another lost job. That's why he ran.

Dead-beat dad laws were passed in the 1980s because of relatively affluent men who were skipping out of child support payments. However, a 2007 study of child support debt in nine states found that seventy percent of the unpaid money that was owed for late payments was owed by people who earned less than $10,000 a year. These people, who all face jail time, were expected to pay over eighty percent of their income in child support. They live in perpetual debt peonage. In 2009, one in eight inmates in South Carolina jails were incarcerated for failure to pay child support. In Georgia, 3,500 parents were jailed for failure to pay child support in 2010 alone. In New Jersey, just two counties either sent 1,800 parents to jail or forced them to wear ankle monitors in 2013. A disproportionate number is these people are poor Black men.

The prison-to-prison pipeline works in two ways. By some estimates, almost seventy percent of young Black men who have been in prison are likely to return, largely because nothing positive waits for them outside. But the prison-to-prison pipeline is also a multi-generational pipeline fed by child poverty, the incarceration of parents, and over-burdened schools.

Susan Modaress is a New York City based independent filmmaker and reporter. I recently had the opportunity to work with her on an "Inside Out Report" on "Children of the Incarcerated." The incarceration of parents in the United States is a form of dual punishment. Adults are punished but so are their innocent children with disastrous impact on families, schools, communities, and society. Most of the information below was presented in the video report and is from The Sentencing Project and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

One in twenty-eight children in the United States have a parent behind bars. For African American children, that number is one in nine. In the U.S. the average term being served by incarcerated parents is eighty months. Each year the number of children with incarcerated parents continue to grow as a result of the record prison population in the United States. The arrest and removal of a mother or father from a child's life forces that child to confront many emotional, social and economic consequences.

The incarceration of parents creates a crisis for children, a crisis for families, a crisis for schools, a crisis for communities, and a crisis for American society as a whole. If you are a teacher in an inner-city school, you likely have three or four students in each class who have a parent who is incarcerated.

The incarceration of parents creates communities of orphans. Children grow up with a sense of loss, a belief that they somehow are responsible for the break up of their families. They do not develop close emotional parental bonds and are often without sufficient adult supervision.

Households with these children function on the economic margins. Remaining caretaker adults, whether it is a parent or grandparent, are under economic and emotional stress and this is conveyed to the child.

Children are unprepared for school, behave badly, perform poorly, and are punished. Studies show that school-age children of incarcerated parents have school-related problems and problems with peer relationships. They are often teased and become truants.

Large concentrations of similar troubled young people create dysfunctional schools and communities. This is a recipe for self-replicating community crisis.

The incarceration of a mother especially can result in more serious disturbances for a child's development, as the mother is typically the primary caregiver. Fifty percent of incarcerated mothers are also their kids' main financial providers. With many children in severe need of assistance, and with the exception for local aid organizations and welfare services, there are only 6 states addressing this issue specifically.

State governments, especially states with Republican governors, have been sharply cutting back on social service budgets since the 2008 financial crisis. The children of incarcerated parents are among the most vulnerable and least protected groups, but services for these children are amongst the easiest to cut.

Even states that provide some services usually hire outside organizations. Some are community based and excellent. But the organizations are not always monitored and are always underfunded.

The San Francisco Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership developed an eight-point bill of rights for children of incarcerated parents. It includes the right to be kept safe and informed at the time of a parent's arrest, to be heard when decisions are made about them, to be considered when decisions are made about their parent, to be well cared for in a parent's absence, to speak with, see and have physical contact with a parent, to be support as they struggle with a parent's incarceration, not to be judged, blamed or labeled because of a parent's incarceration, and to a lifelong relationship with their parent.

No state actually implements this. Instead, the states and the federal government simply feed the prison-to-prison pipeline with a fresh supply of mostly Black men while their children continue to be punished for crimes they did not commit.