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PART 2: Police, Prisons, and Abolition: A Guide for Families Conversing Critically with Kids

Updated: Jul 20, 2021

In this three-part series, Families for Justice hopes to provide relevant resources, thought pieces, and conversation starters curated for those parenting, caring for, and supporting children as we critically examine the institution and function of police and policing, systems of incarceration, and abolitionist alternatives that further models of safety, community care, and repair of harm deeply rooted in racial and transformative justice.

While a wealth of resources has emerged in the past year to explore these topics with intellectual vigor for adults, these resources are rarely directed towards parents, families, or those in caring and supportive roles who would like to critically engage with young people. At Families for Justice, we hope to provide an antidote to that by sharing out resources that can support you and the young ones in your life in furthering learning, dialogue, critical reflection and engagement around these important issues as we collectively – with love and vigor - work towards greater justice. You'll find Part 1 of this series - focused on policing - here.

Part 2: Prisons and Imprisonment - Making Incarceration a Family Issue

It is no secret that the U.S. is the biggest jailer in the world and our country’s system of mass incarceration is not only bloated, but deeply unjust and marked by extreme racial and economic disparities from criminalization to arrest, to who gets charged, who gets jailed and for how long. Our punitive system of caging people - and disproportionately caging Black and brown people and people who are poor - does not, as Angela Davis notes, actually disappear the underlying social problems it has criminalized (poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, mental illness etc.), but it certainly does disappear human beings.

We talk about mass incarceration as a problem, a moral issue, a human rights issue, a racial justice issue, even a stain on our democracy. Rarely, though, is incarceration talked about as a family issue, a kids issue, or one that we should be chatting about over dinner.

And, yet, one out of every 12 children living in the U.S. has experienced parental incarceration at some point in their lives – more than 5.7 million children under the age of 18. One in 4 Black children have had a parent who has been incarcerated compared to one in 25 white children (Sentencing Project). While parental incarceration is staggering regardless of race with more than half of all people who are incarcerated being parents, the racial disparities are harrowing as two thirds of parents who are incarcerated identify as BIPOC. On any given day, a Black child is seven times more likely to have an incarcerated parent than a white child, and Latinx children are twice as likely. While the data for Native children is not known nationally, Oklahoma data demonstrates that Native children are twice as likely as white children to have an incarcerated parent, while in both the Dakotas they are about five times more likely (The Next 100). Children living in poverty are more than three times as likely to have experienced the incarceration of a parent compared with children in families with incomes at least twice the poverty level (Department of Justice).

Incarceration of parents and loved ones is commonplace in our country. Even if your own child has not experienced the incarceration of a loved one, chances are several of their classmates, friends, and others in the wider community have. Talking about prison and systems of incarceration with kids is not a choice for a large percentage of the population - especially BIPOC and low income families who live the realities of being separated from family members behind bars. These are the conversations at dinner, because people are missing from the table.

As we seek to shift away from the dehumanization of punitive systems and towards abolitionist alternatives with approaches to justice that nurture new models of accountability and healing, we must first take a critical look at the realities of prison and imprisonment in this country.

If we don’t have these conversations, engage in active learning, and intentionally seek to uncover the workings of these systems - always just out of view - with our kids, our young people will continue to receive the dominant messages about prison and incarceration wherein caging human beings is akin to a kid’s “time out” for “bad behavior,” where it is “bad people” who go to jail, a place they “deserve to be.”

These messages are insidious and also live in our silences. They not only normalize jailing people, but also dangerously leave the underlying injustices of our policing, legal, and prison system unquestioned legitimizing the long history of racial and social control imprisonment is rooted in. Let us challenge these narratives and learn ourselves, along with our children, in honest, open, curious and compassionate ways. Here are some resources to help with the uncovering, learning, and the critical conversations to come. These are kid’s issues. They are family issues.

1. Let’s get talking!

The two resources included in this section are quick reads, both with five tips, aimed at encouraging conversations about the injustices of our prison systems in this country and critically thinking about the language we use when we do talk.

  • Five ways to talk about criminal justice reform at a family gathering - If you need a reminder of why incarceration is a dinner table issue, check out this short blog from Ben and Jerry’s (yes, ice cream and justice go well together). They offer useful conversation tips and a strong argument for why conversations about incarceration must be happening everywhere, including, and especially, with our families.

  • Five tips for talking about criminal punishment to help end mass incarceration - Check out these useful tips written by a journalist working with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) to get us critically thinking about the language we use to talk about incarceration and imprisonment. While not geared towards conversations with young folks, these are great reminders (such as using person-first language, checking our own biases, humanizing rather than pathologizing) that our words matter as we approach these critical conversations with the kids in our lives.

2. Incarceration is a family issue

Given the growing rates of parental incarceration, there are an increasing number of children’s books on the topic. In this section we have chosen to highlight a few books and some multimedia content that provide sensitive portraits of young people with a loved one who is incarcerated. These materials normalize the experiences of children with incarcerated parents without normalizing the existence of prisons (which is a concerning trend that we noticed in most of the resources geared towards understanding incarceration). While each of the representations through books and multimedia are helpful resources for children with a family member who is incarcerated, the books and video/audio clips can easily and effectively serve as a compelling point of entry point for talking with all kids (regardless of their prior knowledge/experience) about prison and systems of incarceration and the impact on kids/families/communities. All of the books highlighted are available at local libraries.

*According to the Department of Justice between 1991 and 2007 the number of incarcerated parents dramatically grew - with incarcerated mothers increasing by 122% and 76% for incarcerated fathers.

Books to validate experience and open up conversation:

  • Far Apart, Close at Heart: Being A family When A Loved One is Incarcerated by Becky Birtha (picture book, ages 4-8)The book compassionately highlights, and honors, the kids’ complex - and varied - feelings about their parent’s incarceration showing a range of experiences of kids with a parent in jail/prison. A useful tip sheet for talking with, and supporting, children who have a parent incarcerated is included at the end of the book.

  • Missing Daddy by Mariame Kaba (picture book, ages 3-8) – A loving portrayal of a girl and her incarcerated father holding tight to their love for each other – even while separated and the impact of his absence on her and her family. At the end of the book is an excellent set of discussion questions to dig deeper into the story, explore what jail/prison is and its impact on kids and families, and draw connections to young people’s own lives.

  • Visiting Day by Jacqueline Woodson (picture book, ages 4-8) – A tender portrait of a child and her grandmother preparing, and then journeying, to visit her father in prison. Features a loving, positive relationship between the child and her father.

  • Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin (picture book, ages 8-12)An engaging chapter book sensitively exploring 11-year-old Ruby’s experience of her mother’s incarceration, navigating loss, new friendship, and healing.

Multimedia content to offer support and spark family discussion:

  • Coping with incarceration - Leave it to Sesame Street to make one of the most accessible and positive resources to explore parental incarceration in clear, concise kid-friendly language that both de-stigmatizes having a parent in prison while also honoring kid’s complex emotions. The resources are importantly geared towards children with incarcerated parents and caregivers with a range of interactive activities and tips for support and emotional unpacking.

There are also several excellent video clips – some animated, others with the classic Muppets, and those featuring real kids with incarcerated parents – that can serve as a resource both for children with family members who are incarcerated and kids who may be learning about the about incarceration and its impact on other kids without having a personally connection.

  • “What was it like to be pregnant with me in jail?” – In this short story corps segment an 8 year old child, Savannah, has a conversation with her mother about the experience of being pregnant and giving birth to Savannah while incarcerated.

  • “When a Mother’s Day means a trip to prison – A New York Times short documentary that follows several children as they visit their mothers who are incarcerated on Mother’s Day. The film is light on narration, showing the experience rather than offering commentary, making it particularly emotionally affecting.

3. Examining mass incarceration, the Prison Industrial Complex, and systems of imprisonment: A look at the numbers and the people

Beginning to conceptualize the sheer magnitude of our ever-expanding mass incarceration system and how criminalization and imprisonment extend far beyond the edges of prison cells into communities can be overwhelming to conceptualize ourselves, let alone explain to kids! The resources in this section seek to offer some learning tools for demystifying these massive systems and finding ways to understand both the numbers that chart the many injustices in our system (because the numbers do matter) as well as the people and stories behind them.

Mass incarceration:

  • “Why does the U.S. jail so many people?- A short video from AJ+ and the Marshall Project explaining, and examining, mass incarceration in the U.S. and its consequences. The fast paced, compelling video is a great overview to spark further learning about mass incarceration, the gross injustices of our imprisonment systems, and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) more generally. Watch together with older elementary aged kids, great for middle and high school aged youth.

  • Mass incarceration, animated This series created by the ACLU explores the gross racial and economic disparities built into structures of mass incarceration and the harm these punitive systems exact on individuals through the stories of three people who have experienced imprisonment. Each person’s story is compellingly shared through a 2 min animated clip where we hear their own voice narrating their experience. The video segments are paired with written analysis about the issues (ie mandatory minimums, life sentences) that the clip highlights, offering helpful context for taking discussions further. Excellent resource for moving beyond the statistics and humanizing the experiences of racial injustice and harm in our system. Can be explored together with your family with a focus on older elementary ages and up.

The Prison Industrial Complex:

  • What is the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) – This zine created by Project NIA is designed to be an “accessible introduction for youth and adults” of the Prison Industrial Complex and features compelling drawings and short text pointing to different manifestations of the PIC and its impact on communities. A good visual conversation starter about the reach of our imprisonment system for middle and high schoolers.

  • Curriculum guide to the Prison Industrial Complex – Although it is designed as a popular education tool to be used in groups, this resource guide features a selection of learning activities that could be adapted to explore with the young people in your life. Through interactive activities – a jeopardy game, an interactive timeline, a prison town role play game - it explores different aspects of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). Activity II a “mind-mapping” on page 4 and 5 of the document features great opening questions to understand the scope of the PIC and an activity that could easily be done with the young people in your life (and adapted for different ages). The Appendix includes materials you would need to do the activities. Additionally, check out Appendix 1 (page 10) Fiction v.s. Reality, a compilation of facts and fictions about the PIC and the role of incarceration, and Appendix 3 (page 18) Names Behind the Numbers, that features important language focused on humanizing the people behind the statistics that can be useful to use in your conversations with your young people.

  • The real cost of prisons comics: Prison Town – The real Cost of Prison’s Project created a three part comic book series on different aspects of the Prison Industrial Complex, all are downloadable here. The first installment, Prison Town, is particularly strong and looks at how prisons and jails affect people in rural communities in which prison are built as well as how incarceration impacts people in urban communities where most incarcerated people come from, looking at the money and politics that shape the issue through an engaging comic. Great for middle and high school aged youth.

Infographics, charts and all kinds of fact sheets:

  • Prison Policy has a wealth of accessible visuals, fact sheets, charts and graphs that examine the many racial, gender, class, education, health disparities in our prison system. The Staff Picks features compelling infographics, particularly those comparing the rates of incarceration between countries with the U.S. grossly out of step with the rest of the world. Prison Policy also has other interactive material like this animated video made in collaboration with the Prison Policy Institute - exploring mass incarceration that helps make the data understandable.

  • The Sentencing Project also focuses on core issues in our current systems of imprisonment with excellent accessible statistics, graphs and infographics and navigable “issues and “facts sections. Additionally, if you and your young people are interested in learning more about a particular part about incarceration (ie racial disparities, immigrant detention, women and girls specifically), there are excellent, short, reports that can be downloaded. For example, check out their Trends in U.S. Corrections that features an overview of many of the overall findings with accessible graphs and infographics.

Engaging options for taking learning further:

  • Just MercyBryan Stevenson, the lawyer, advocate and activist known for his work fighting to free “wrongly imprisoned people,” wrote a book entitled Just Mercy which was adapted into an acclaimed film by the same name (age 12+ but watch together). His book was also adapted for young adults (12+) ! The book is a compelling look at mass incarceration and his own struggle to confront the racial and economic injustices entrenched in our imprisonment systems and fight for justice. The book and film center on stories of people wrongly imprisoned, touching on an important part of the conversation about incarceration, but also, point to larger themes about the harms of our prison systems for all incarcerated people. There are three excellent discussion guides to support conversations with young people building from reading/viewing Just Mercy: the Just Mercy YA Guide focuses on the young adult version of the book with excellent questions and a wealth of resources for additional learning and content. A discussion guide for the film developed by Defining America focuses on themes of confronting anti-Blackness by also drawing linkages between the experiences of Black people and immigrants with powerful questions and The Equal Justice Initiative, founded by Stevenson, has a Discussion Topic Guide that focuses on some of the core themes of Just Mercy, posing questions and offering additional learning content paired with real photos of the people portrayed in the film.

  • The Eastern State Penitentiary Museum: Yes, a museum in, and about, a prison - one of the most famous prisons known as the world’s first true “penitentiary” for its harsh practices focused on penance through punishment. For young people interested in the history of prisons themselves, not just systems of incarceration, this offers a window inside. And, while not the same as an in-person visit, the website is extensive with virtual and audio tours, some interactive online exhibits, art installations (check out Dehanza Rogers: #BlackGirlhood), and a look both historically at imprisonment as well as how it has evolved (check out the Prison Today exhibit exploring mass incarceration, there is even a 3D virtual tour).

  • The Knotted Line – timeline of freedom and confinement - A fascinating interactive electronic resource that pairs 45 paintings and supplementary learning content to examine the historical “relationship between freedom and confinement in the United States” showing both practices and policies that have systematically denied freedom and furthered imprisonment as well as people’s organizing, resistance and resilience with an interactive visual timeline. Check out this video introducing the project, The Knotted Line - An Introduction on Vimeo. Additionally there are excellent learning resources, like this Timeline that build on the paintings and include multimedia content and historical context ) to dig deeper. While geared towards teens, the material can be engaged with at different levels and would be interesting to explore as a family with older elementary and early middle school aged youth as well.

4. The jailing of young people

Just as systems of imprisonment impact children through the incarceration of their loved ones, youth – and disproportionately youth who are Black and brown, low-income, LGBTQ and those with disabilities - are impacted through their own experiences of being funneled into the prison system through punitive practices in their schools and communities where they find themselves criminalized - and even jailed - at significantly higher rates than their white, economically privileged, non-disabled, heterosexual and cis gender peers. Young people are incarcerated at a higher rate in the U.S. than any other nation in the world, with 67 percent of youth incarcerated being BIPOC. Exploring the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the incarceration of youth can be a particularly relevant entry point for talking about incarceration with your kids - particularly middle and high schoolers - and can open up important questions about punitive systems of justice - including in school - and the harm they create.

  • A “Table Talk” about school discipline and the School-to-Prison Pipelinethe Anti-Defamation League has developed a “Table Talk: Family Conversations About Current Events” guide for exploring the School-to-Prison Pipeline with kids (geared towards 12+ but could be adapted for younger ages too). The guide has excellent questions for approaching the conversation as well as links to video clips and a useful infographic.

  • Prison Kids: A Crime Against America’s ChildrenA free documentary by Fusion that explores the Juvenile Justice System across the U.S. looking at young people’s stories of “growing up behind bars,” the impact on them and their families and the cycles of harm. The Campaign for Youth Justice has developed this great set of discussion questions for the film that you could draw from in your own family conversations.

  • Prison State: School-to-Prison Pipeline – The 2 min video, part of a larger PBS Frontline series called, Prison State, features Michelle Alexander and draws important connections between juvenile and adult prison systems, looks at cycles of incarceration and the criminalization of Black and brown young people. The “Support Materials for Teachers” on the right hand side includes a link to useful guiding questions to explore the short clip further.

  • School-to-Prison Pipeline lesson plan – A simple “lesson plan” developed for conversations with middle and high school students that can easily be adapted for use at home featuring some easy opening questions, links to accessible articles and great video clips to explore the issues and connect to young people’s own school experiences.

Further Reading/Context

Resources on the history of incarceration as a tool of racial and social control

Understanding the historical context out of which our current system of incarceration has emerged is critical in seeking change and, even, abolition. As we explored in Part 1 of our series looking closely at policing, the U.S. has a long history of enforcing white supremacy not only through direct forms of violence, but, also, through social policy and practice including our structures of policing, legal systems, and imprisonment itself. The following resources are useful both for your own learning as you approach conversations with kids about incarceration - its legacies in slavery and how it operates as a tool of social and racial control - and for exploring together with the youth in your life. While most resources are geared towards middle and high schoolers, you know your kids best, anything can be adapted as well.

  • The Legacy of Slavery and Mass IncarcerationA lesson plan by the Pulitzer Center and the NYT’s 1619 Project exploring the linkages between slavery and our current incarceration systems using Bryan Stevenson’s essay “Mass Incarceration” as a guiding text. While geared towards educators/educational spaces and middle and high school aged youth, these activities and questions could be adapted to explore together as a family. The “warm up” questions are particularly strong as an opener for investigating what the young people in your life already know and are thinking about incarceration and imprisoning people. And while Stevenson’s article is not particularly accessible for younger audiences (although short and great for older readers), the relevant content could be easily pulled out (based on the questions) to share and explore with younger kids. Particularly relevant in the “extension activities” is Option 3 which invites folks to learn and think more critically about systems of incarceration in your community as well as Option 4 that focuses on jails and prisons and detention centers in the context of Covid.

  • Slavery to mass incarceration, visualized - A short video by the Equal Justice Initiative with a drawing animation that traces the history of slavery to mass incarceration today. Watching the clip together with your older elementary, middle school aged and older teens would offer a useful starting point for further exploration about the links between slavery and our current systems of incarceration -

  • The New Jim Crow Curriculum - An in-depth 10 part curriculum for high school students exploring the New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander developed by Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching for Tolerance) and Alexander herself. While Alexander has a version of her book adapted for young audiences that was published in 2020, it is hard to find in print and this extensive series of lessons includes some of the best and most accessible learning about her book for younger audiences including relevant selections of the text. The lesson plans are very clearly developed for educators but there are useful parts that could be explored with the teens in your life, or even encourage you to push for this kind of curriculum in your kid’s school!

  • The 13th Documentary - The film traces the legacies and linage of slavery and anti-blackness into our current Prison Industrial Complex. For older middle and high school aged young people to view with family, or for your own learning. These two discussion guides (one from Nehemiah and the other from Education for Justice) offer some background information and critical questions to consider that you could pull from for further conversations in your family.

Families for Justice is a network of people in Dane County working to dismantle white supremacy through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Read more about us on our main webpage.

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