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Q&A: Latin American Children With Parents in Prison Get No Support

PRISONS / 22 JUN 2023 BY CHRIS DALBY EN

Despite wide-ranging evidence of the consequences of prison overcrowding, including widespread gang recruitment and extensive human rights abuses, Latin America keeps jailing more and more people.

Increasing attention is being paid to children with incarcerated parents: the long-term socioeconomic impacts of this separation, the marginalization they suffer, and their potential involvement in criminal activity later in life.

In a new book published by the United Nations-backed University for Peace, Global Approaches on State Fragility & Organized Crime, one chapter looks in depth at the ramifications of children seeing their parents incarcerated. In the majority of the examined cases, the mothers were imprisoned for relatively unimportant drug crimes.

InSight Crime sat down with Megan Capp, a criminologist and PhD researcher at the University for Peace, and Mauricio Vieira, the book's editor and Chair on Countering Illicit Trade and Preventing Transnational Organized Crime at the University for Peace, to learn more.

InSight Crime (IC): What are the expected long-term socioeconomic implications for children in Latin America who have their parents jailed?

Megan Capp (MC): Each child and family situation is unique. But, in most cases, the incarceration of a parent is highly stressful and disruptive to a child’s life and future outcomes. These children often exist in social environments where violence, poverty, and marginalization are a regular part of their communities.

The incarceration of a parent for any length of time amplifies these existing vulnerabilities while also introducing new barriers to their well-being and healthy development. During their parent’s incarceration, children often need to take on the roles of adulthood, including employment and caregiving for siblings, which impacts their ability to complete their education. They are regularly stigmatized by other community members, including teachers, peers, health professionals and more, which can seriously impact their emotional and mental health.

IC: Recent research has focused on “collective trajectory,” the notion that shared experience and exposure to organized crime at a young age makes it far more likely for children to join a criminal group. Does this hold true for young people whose parents are incarcerated?

Mauricio Vieira (MV): It is essential to avoid the correlation that children of incarcerated parents will join criminal gangs or will have more chances to join. We must focus on other aspects, such as the government’s inability to provide essential services to children and youth, especially access to school and employment. Such absence of the state opens the door for criminality to flourish at a young age.

This became more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some schools in Latin American cities were closed due to not having the technology for online teaching. Without schools, children and youth quickly become a target for forced recruitment from criminal gangs.

SEE ALSO: Jails Help Turn Kids Into Criminals. In Belize, There’s a Better Way.

IC: Some “traditional” criminal groups, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, claim to feel some responsibility for their members' families. Is there evidence of groups taking care of the children of jailed members?

MV: While no research shows such a pattern, this does not mean it is not happening on the ground. This highlights the roles criminal groups play within the communities in which they operate. Criminal groups assume some responsibility in the community due to the absence of the state or the need to empower themselves within the community. This may also have to do with the perspective of protection. This is where groups guarantee a type of security to the community, which is unique from the state, while also protecting and proliferating their illicit practices through new rules, norms, negotiation, extortion, and threats.

IC: You found that only 10% of kids whose mothers were in prison stayed with their parents. Who takes care of these children, if anyone, when no family is available?

MC: In most situations, when the father is incarcerated, the mother continues to care for the children, while also now facing the additional strain of being solely financially and emotionally responsible for the children. But where the mother is incarcerated, we see a shifting of caregiving responsibilities onto siblings, the maternal grandparents, aunts, or other family members. There is a gendered dynamic to this, with other females generally taking on the caregiving responsibilities in the absence of the mother.

There are also situations where the mother may have her child with her while she serves her sentence. Due to the transnational nature of drug crimes, she may be charged and incarcerated in a country different than their home country. In these situations, and in situations where there is no available family to care for the child, the child may be placed in an institution. In these cases, research shows a significant lack of coordination between the criminal justice and child protection systems, making the reality of maintaining the child and parent bond during incarceration even more challenging.

SEE ALSO: Argentina Spares Mother Who Served as Drug Mule to Save Son

IC: Are there countries in Latin America that do better in taking care of these children and providing social support in the absence of their parents?

MC: At the national level, minimal public policies exist to address the varied and particular needs of children of incarcerated parents. Chile is a unique case where there are publicly funded programs to support the continued relationship between a mother and her child during a period of incarceration. Costa Rica has taken steps to consider a mother’s caregiving responsibilities as a mitigating factor when sentencing for drug offenses. And Brazil provides financial support to impacted families if the parent was a member of a formal workforce prior to their incarceration.

There is some promising work happening at the community-based and civil society levels. One example of this is the creation of La Plataforma NNAPEs, a regional coalition of 11 organizations from 10 countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, who work to protect and promote the rights of children of incarcerated parents.

In some countries, national policies exist, based on the UN Bangkok Rules, which allow the child to remain with the mother in prison. But inadequate and under-resourced implementation has led to numerous concerns regarding the safety and care of these children. While this arrangement allows for the maintenance of the child-parent relationship, the vast majority of prisons in the region are not set up to adequately protect or support these children and their developmental, healthcare, and educational needs.

In accordance with international human rights considerations, children are generally allowed to visit their parents in prison. But children have reported being subject to invasive body searches, witnessing violence and being mistreated by guards. This all shapes their perceptions of criminal justice actors. It also forces caregivers into the unique situation of wanting to support the child in maintaining a relationship with their incarcerated parent, while also protecting them from the stress and stigma that comes from such a situation.

IC: Can the presence of children inside prisons be used by other criminals to either extort their parents, threaten the children, or force them to join criminal groups?

MV: This is a very interesting question because it is embedded in a dichotomic hypothesis of “Yes” or “No.” I prefer to rephrase it by discussing the vulnerabilities these children face. These vulnerabilities are not only related to threats from criminal groups but also related to a lack of attention from the state, which, in turn, increases the children’s vulnerability due to their inadequate social conditions.

The point I want to raise is: what are the initiatives led by the state that contribute to diminishing children’s vulnerabilities in the face of parental incarceration? Is the state capable of proactively acting to disrupt the social risks these children face? Our discussion must problematize our understanding of the victim and perpetrator relationship. Specifically, we acknowledge that criminal groups, unfortunately, do what they aim to do. Instead, what should we be expecting from the state?

IC: You mention that mano dura policies have contributed to a rapid increase in incarceration rates. How have crackdowns, like the one in El Salvador, exacerbated the situation of parents in prison?

MC: The situation in El Salvador has led to a drastic increase in the number of children who are experiencing parental incarceration. We know that the female prison population of El Salvador increased seven times from 2000 to 2022. The lack of consideration for these families during the crackdown has led to increased stigma and social needs that we are just beginning to understand.

IC: What policy recommendations would you have to improve this situation? Is there a hope that minor drug-related offenses will be reformed, given the focus on being “tough on crime” in much of the region?

MC: The ultimate starting point would be to have the experiences of these children considered in all criminal justice decision-making, including from arrest to sentencing, to incarceration and beyond. With minor drug offenses, it would be helpful to ensure sentences are in proportion to the offense committed and to consider extenuating circumstances, such as the level of the drug trade at which the person is operating, their unique characteristics of vulnerability, and whether or not they have caregiving responsibilities.

In situations where incarceration is absolutely necessary, prison visits and situations where the child stays with the mother in prison, should be considered through a child-centric and rights-based lens. These visits and living situations should be adequately resourced, evaluated, and drastically improved to better meet the needs of impacted children.

It would be extremely helpful to have more data on the numbers of children impacted by parental incarceration, and the unique experiences and needs of these children. With no country in the region currently collecting data on whether or not prisoners have children, governments could begin collecting quantitative data disaggregated by gender.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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