Why Does Domestic Violence Matter: The Link Among Domestic Violence, Incarceration and a Child’s Ability to Succeed Academically

Here are some facts: 2% of all children and 7% of black children have a parent in prison. Only 1 – 2% of those students whose mothers are incarcerated and 13 – 25% of those students whose fathers are incarcerated will graduate from college. In the United States, nearly 70% of women in prison are mothers. According to the ACLU, nearly 60% of incarcerated women have a history of physical or sexual abuse prior to their commitment.

The issues surrounding academic achievement, domestic violence and incarceration are all interrelated and cyclical. Girls and women who are victims of domestic violence are at increased risk of being incarcerated because their survival strategies are regularly criminalized. According to researcher Mary E. Gilfus, girls and women often cope by engaging in illicit behavior, including prostitution, drug use, economic crimes, assault, and running away. Not only do these girls and women face jail time as a result of illegal activity, but welfare, housing and immigration policies, drug enforcement, and mandatory prosecution and sentences further place these victims at risk of being incarcerated.

Many children whose parents are in prison live in impoverished households, are exposed to substance abuse, and have witnessed or been victims of domestic violence prior to the parent’s arrest. As such, the cycle continues wherein girls and women rely on survival strategies, many of which will land them in prison. Low-income women of color are most at risk for abuse and most at risk for being criminalized, entrapped and forced by abusive policies into the corrections system.

Here is how this information impacts the achievement gap: With mothers who have a history of domestic violence and become incarcerated (often the result of their illegal coping mechanisms), the likelihood of their children’s academic success is severely diminished.  Compared to white children, black children are three and a half times more likely to experience the incarceration of a parent. As previously cited, children whose parents have been imprisoned during their lifetime are unlikely to ever graduate from college. Women of color, particularly those who are black, are statistically more likely to be incarcerated. Accordingly, their children of color are more likely to suffer academically as a result of their incarceration. Thus, the achievement gap continues.

The Junior League of Minneapolis’s Between the Lines program aims to strengthen the bond between incarcerated mothers and their children while promoting literacy. Approximately five times each year, the women who serve on the Between the Lines Committee visit the Shakopee Prison, which is Minnesota’s only correctional facility that houses women. When the committee members visit the prison, they use an audio recorder to capture the stories the inmates read out of books to their children. The committee then converts these stories to CDs, which are given to each inmate’s respective children. After each visit, more than 80 children receive an audio recording of their mother reading a book to them, a personal message from their mother, and a new, wrapped copy of the book.

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