WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
17 Nov 2015 | Commentary | News

The Invisible Victims of Latin America’s Incarceration Crisis

By Kate Weine
On October 22, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held a hearing titled Situation of Children of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas. In this hearing, which was the first of its kind, the Commission welcomed discussion on the negative impacts of the children of incarcerated parents. Based on a report by Church World Service (CWS) entitled Invisible no more, the three participants—from Gurises Unidos, Colectivo Artesana and CWS—presented their thoughts and findings on the topic. They shared case studies and offered best practices that could serve as a model for a larger strategy. Commissioner Jim Cavallaro was particularly receptive of the issues mentioned, and specifically acknowledged the importance of understanding how drug policy affects women—and consequently their children—in Latin America.
SEE ALSO: A joint project to promote the human rights of women incarcerated on drug offenses
Latin America is currently experiencing what many refer to as an “epidemic of incarceration.” Prisons across Latin America are bursting at the seams with individuals serving extensive terms for low level drug charges. The impact on their children can be devastating. Currently, there is an estimated 1.5 to 1.9 million children throughout the region with an incarcerated parent. They become the “invisible” victims of the penal system, hence the title of this report. These children have no voice, and there is a severe lack of both institutional support and public policies in place to advocate for their rights. Further, very little attention is paid to this problem.
The goal of this report was to promote understanding of the lives of children of incarcerated parents. Ultimately, it aims to prompt the development of new strategies that are needed in order to build awareness and establish more humane and effective policies. After a series of interviews with children, caregivers and guardians, certain themes began to emerge about their life experience. The report identifies and describes seven main themes, which encompass the range of challenges that these children face in the absence of a parental figure. This list enables us to understand not only how this epidemic of incarceration affects families, but also what specifically needs to be addressed moving forward.
  • Economic impact and early assumption of adult roles: Children are forced to assume increased responsibility within the home, and often need to find jobs to make up for lost income.
  • Emotional and psychological impacts: The incarceration of a parent results in dramatic effects on both mental and physical health, and often impedes social development as well.
  • Parental roles and responsibilities: Incarceration often impedes parents’ abilities to exercise their legally-protected rights to care for their child, which makes it difficult to maintain a normal and healthy parent-child relationship.
  • Formation of identity and communities of resistance: There is a serious cycle of poverty and illegal activity within these families, which creates a complex environment for children in which it is difficult to instill a sense of what is right versus wrong.
  • Social stigmatization and discrimination:There is a strong social stigma that exists, in which children are publicly ridiculed and punished for having a family member in prison.
  • Perception of police and the justice system:Children grow skeptical of police and justice systems through the lens of their parents’ experience with the law. This is often exacerbated by their personal experiences visiting prison.
  • The importance and difficulties of visiting incarcerated parents: Visiting prisons is generally an extremely emotional and unpleasant experience, largely because of the poor conditions and mistreatment that occurs, but also simply because they always have to say goodbye.
Invisible no more provides a thorough analysis of the experience of these children. It is evident that the impact of their parents’ incarceration is multi-dimensional, interfering with all aspects of their lives. The question remains: What can be done and where do we start? The report closes with five main recommendations for how to protect and promote the rights of children of incarcerated parents, with a particular focus on how to simultaneously target underlying issues while also developing innovative institutional support and public policies.
  • Research: Given that there is little data on this issue, more quantitative and qualitative information is essential in order to develop proper intervention strategies.
  • Awareness-raising and training: As a foundation for future programs and policies, it is important to inform and train both government officials and civil society representatives on the challenges and vulnerabilities that these children experience. Educational materials should be developed that can serve as a reliable resource to children, prison officials, institutions and the affected communities.
  • Penal system policies and procedures: There should be a complete overhaul of penal system policies. This includes the introduction of a registry of children of incarcerated parents, which will ensure proper guardianship arrangements, and access to social services. These changes must also address issues of communication systems and visiting procedures.
  • Community and civil society: It is crucial to strive for the full integration of children of incarcerated parents in their communities, including in education, healthcare, and social services, in partnership with civil society and grassroots organizations.
  • Public policies and coordination: This recommendation calls for the establishment of child protection policies, access to economic support and social programs that will reduce the risk of social exclusion and stigmatization. There must also be improved coordination between social and judicial systems to ensure that the rights of children of incarcerated parents are protected.

Photo: A woman incarcerated in Bogotá, Colombia, tells WOLA of the effects her imprisonment has had on her children. Kate Weine is a WOLA Intern, Fall 2015.