Reuben Miller, a chaplain at the Cook County Jail in Chicago, is the keynote speaker at the third annual National Children of Incarcerated Parents Conference, a virtual gathering of professionals hosted this spring by Arizona State University’s Center for Child Well-Being.
Miller’s April 21 presentation, “Halfway Home: Race, Punishment and the Afterlife of Mass Incarceration,” is also the title of his new book. The book is a portrait of the many ways mass incarceration reaches into American life, sustaining structural racism and redrawing the boundaries of our democracy.
We spoke with Miller, who is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, about his work and the importance of understanding the needs of children and families of incarcerated persons.
While the conference's remaining live sessions will be presented April 21 and April 28, all sessions are being recorded. Those who register by May 19 will receive access to all the recorded sessions. Register for the conference.
Editor's note: Answers have been edited for length.
Question: Tell us about your work in Cook County and how you became familiar with issues involving families of incarcerated people.
Answer: I started out as a volunteer chaplain at the Cook County Jail in 2003 and I did that for about five years. I visited a jail two to three days a week, spending four to six hours a day in minimum, medium and maximum security. My primary job was to sit with men, to pray with men and spend time with them. I would meet with them and help them work through their fears and the problems they were facing and help them think about a purpose they might want to find for themselves.
Many people were facing long-term issues — illnesses like HIV, disabilities. Most people talked to me about their cases and their problems. Many of them asked me to spend time with their families — their mothers, their children, their siblings, to let them know they care. They would ask me to tell them that they loved them and that they were thinking about them and sometimes, that they were sorry.
Q: Crime victims’ families are rightfully given public attention and sentiment. Children of the incarcerated are equally innocent. Why is it that their stories and their needs are seldom talked about in society?
A: I appreciate that question. I think a couple of things. Some of it has to do with people not knowing that about half of people who are incarcerated are parents. That’s something that’s not in the calculus of a prosecutor or judge when they’re handing out a sentence, for example. It’s something that social workers are attuned to in some ways but it’s not a part of the standard training. Even child welfare services (workers) aren’t typically flagged unless there is a case of maltreatment or abuse, but this represents just a fraction of the cases involving (the) incarcerated.
Second, this is really a hidden population. This is also a hidden need. On the one hand people (on the outside) don’t know. On the other hand, when people know, there is a sentiment, “You did the crime, do the time. Just desserts. You get what you deserve.” This happens without considering these children. What will these children do? What was the crime that the kid committed? The parent robbed a bank. The parent murdered somebody. The parent used drugs. What did the child have to do with it? We’re afraid of people who cause this harm. It doesn’t help that most people in the system are racialized and poor. Something like 80% of all people who go to prison or jail are poor. We know that one-third of those folks are Black and something like 20% are Latinx. Another small percentage, 3% or 4%, are “other.” About a third of those folks are white.
This is the group we’ve learned to be afraid of. Some of them have committed harm. Half are in prison for violent crimes, so people are afraid. That fear unfortunately transfers to the children and my position is, it’s unfair and really short-sighted. Because again, what did these children do?
Q: Without some form of assistance, what is likely to happen to these children as they become adults?
A: The literature is quite clear. Children of incarcerated parents suffer negative mental health outcomes. There is a whole literature on rejection sensitivity. We see children of incarcerated parents develop what psychologists call anticipatory rejection, they expect to have the door close on them as it’s closed on others. They turn inward. They’re dissatisfied with relationships later in life. They have trouble concentrating in school. Children of incarcerated parents have poor academic outcomes. They are more likely to have legal entanglements themselves and they are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated later.
Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to be taken by the state, by child welfare services and more likely to be separated in the long term from their parent. Then there is the problem of adjusting when the parents come home, another area where we need services. Some of them may be a stranger who has been gone for 10 years and the child is 11 years old. What does it mean for someone whose parent missed their teenage years? For a toddler trying to reconnect now that they’re 5 or 6 or 7 years old? These are the kinds of attachments that we have to think more carefully about.
Q: In your book, "Halfway Home," you make the point that the idea that one can serve one’s time and return to life as a full-fledged member of society is one of America’s most pernicious myths. Tell us why this belief continues to be so widely accepted and how the actual reality affects the families and children of incarcerated people. Is it Hollywood? Where do we get these ideas?
A: It’s such a powerful and important point. The success of the Mafia movie genre, for example, where the mobster knows how to make a great baked ziti … the idea that organized crime – the gang – would resemble what we think about as a family system is in and of itself striking. That mob movies are a popular genre says something about the American imagination. Well, you can’t have that if you construct monsters. If you just have this black-and-white view of people, if we reduce them to the worst thing they have ever done, there is no room for them to be a loving parent. This view of them is just untrue. This is not to say there aren’t people who commit crimes against kids, that people aren’t sociopathic or that there aren’t people who have deeper or more entrenched issues. ... This is not to say that there are not bad people who commit crimes. But there is a degree of human complexity that we don’t allow for. People who have committed crimes are part of our community and our society. They are connected to a mother, a brother, a sister or a child. They are someone’s parent or partner or friend. They play a role in the world that someone else needs them to play. These are the things we must remember if we want to get to a place of actual change in the criminal legal system and we must think more carefully and critically about the babies that we are leaving behind in our social and public policy.