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Manual for Grandparent-Relative Caregivers and Their Advocates:
About the Grandparents Manual
Dependency Proceedings
Getting a Child out of a Shelter
Visitation Rights of Grandparents
When Permanent Custody is Necessary
Foster Care
Public Benefits
Relative Caregivers Options Chart
School Issues
Statewide Listings for County Boards of Education
Resource Guide Statewide
Resource Guide Northern California
Resource Guide Central California
Resource Guide Southern California
Donate Now through Network for Good
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Women in Prison

Ellen Barry, River Ginchild-Abeje, Cassie Pierson, Lucy Quacinella
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children

Creating a responsive legal and social support system

The Families

Grandparent and Relative Caregivers: New Twists on the Family Structure

An increasing number of children in our community have grandparents and other relative caregivers as their primary caregivers. Among the factors contributing to this rise are the explosion in incarceration rates between 1980 and 2000, substance dependency, the AIDS epidemic, and further marginalization of the poor. Grandparents and other relatives have stepped in to stabilize the situation for these children, to share resources and to prevent another generation from cycling into the criminal justice system.

Extended family caregiving is not a new phenomenon and has been extensively documented in African-American families in classic studies such as All Our Kin , which testified to the positive force of this response. The phenomenon has also been misunderstood and vilified in the now infamous "Moynihan Report". However, a helpful perspective appears in two later studies:

Black Grandparents As Parents and Grandmother as Caregivers: Raising Children of the Crack Cocaine Epidemic .

New attention is warranted because of the dramatic increase of grandparents as primary caregivers. In 1997, 5.5% of children lived in their Grandparents’ homes, compared to 3.6% in 1980. The burden falls heaviest on the African-American community: according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census (1999), nearly four times as many African-American grandparents have primary responsibility for their grandchildren as do their white counterparts and there are twice as many African-American grandparent caregivers as there are Latino grandparent caregivers.5 27% of children who live in their grandparents’ homes live in poverty, and that rate is much higher--63%-- for children who live with a single grandmother.6

Grandparent families in all communities share many of the same problems. The children suffer the trauma of separation from their parents. The grandparents must re-define their relationship to their grandchildren since they no longer have the welcomed traditions of "doting grandparents" but must parent with difficult obligations of discipline and other stresses. The children and grandparents must struggle with their new relationship to the absent parent and the grandparents must readjust their households financially and physically for infants and young children.7 Typically, grandparents in this situation would go to a legal services agency and separately to a social services agency to meet their varied needs. Recognition of the need for comprehensive services through a coordinated service delivery system for these grandparent families is growing.

The Crisis

Factors contributing to the rise in Grandparent and Relative Caregivers

The rise of grandparent caregivers can be attributed to several complex and interwoven factors. These include: the rising rates of incarceration for women with dependent children over the last 20 years, as a result, in large part, of tougher sentencing for drug crimes, further marginization of communities in poverty, racism, substance abuse, and limited access to treatment for drug and alcohol dependence.

California’s prison population grew by an unprecedented 228% during the 1980s, followed by an additional 40% jump in the 1990s at a time when the state’s overall population grew by only 14% and the crime rate was down. This brought the number of persons in state or federal prison or county jails in California to 249,000 in 2000.8 And although the absolute number of California prisoners actually decreased by 33 from June 1999 to June 2000,9 it is by no means clear how long last year’s downward trend will last or how pronounced it may become.

People of color continue to be most dramatically affected: African-Americans make up only 7% of Californians, but 29% of incarcerated persons in our state.10 One out of 33 blacks in California was incarcerated in April 2000, compared with one out of 122 Hispanics and one out of 205 whites.11

195,000 children in California have parents behind bars

The growth of the prison population has also dramatically affected the lives of millions of children. In 1999, U.S. prisons held the parents of over 1.5 million children, an increase of over 500,000 since 1991.12 In California, 195,000 children now have parents in state prison, and another 97,000 children have parents in county jail; the parents of 564,000 other children were on parole or probation, bringing the total number of California children with parents involved in the adult criminal justice system to 856,000.13

Getting Tough on Parents’ Drug Crimes Has Been Tough On Kids

For most of the last two decades, unusual and sensational crime stories received lots of attention and were often the catalyst for "tough laws," epitomized by mandatory minimum sentencing for drug crimes in the federal system and California’s “three strikes” law, requiring sentences of from 25 years to life after a third qualifying conviction.14 We must keep in mind the impact these laws have on our children, and our duty to protect their interests should not lose out to vengeance against the parents.

Unfortunately, the latter approach prevailed in California during most of the 1990s, reflected not only by incarceration rates but also by the fact that the budget of the state Department of Corrections grew to consume 7% of the general fund while funding for higher education, for example, dropped to 13% from 14.4% over the same period.15 The growth in spending on prisons has also diverted fundss that could otherwise have been available for childcare assistance, medical aid, legal services, and subsidized housing.16 And while prison coffers grew fat, the number of families in poverty in California has remained high--11%--even with the extraordinary economic boom of the late 1990s. A shocking 19.5% of our children were poor during the last decade.17 Poverty rates are likely to go higher with the economy’s slide toward recession in 2001.

Widespread drug use is a problem in all sectors of our society, with estimates that 78 million Americans (36% of the population) have tried drugs at least once.18 Despite the images in the press of the predominance of drug use in low income and communities of people of color, recent studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse illustrate that the level of drug use is similar across racial lines.19

Drug offenses now make up about one-third of federal crimes.20 In California, 28% of people in state prison are in for drug crimes.21 Disproportionate sentencing for crack cocaine, which draws much harsher penalties than possession of an identical amount of powder cocaine, accounts for much of the racial discrepancy in incarceration rates. Crack is cheaper and far more prevalent in black communities than powder cocaine.22

Women Belong in Treatment, Not Prison

Another factor that has contributed to the prison boom is the failure to meet the drug epidemic with treatment options. Comprehensive treatment services are in short supply, especially for women with young children. Yet the experience of programs such as Hope House in the Bay Area and others with a family-centered approach has shown that the women who have been able to maintain connection with their children are much more likely to succeed in the recovery process.23 As the state and counties begin to implement Proposition 36, which is designed to provide treatment instead of prison to certain persons convicted of drug crimes, California communities should have some new opportunities to advocate for family-centered treatment options for women.

As of June 30, 1999, there were 87,199 women under the jurisdiction of state and federal prisons in the U.S., a 5.5% increase from 1998. Since 1990 the incarceration of women in the U.S. has grown 8.5% annually, and 92% overall.24 In California, the number of women incarcerated quadrupled during the 1980s, and, in the 1990s, it rose from 17,500 to 23,600.25

African-American women have been disproportionately affected. As of 1999, 33.6% of California women inmates were black, 23.4% Hispanic, and 38.4% white.26

As the number of women incarcerated has grown, the number of children affected has increased at a disproportionately highter rate, since women are much more likely than men to be the primary caregivers of their children. Studies have shown that about one quarter of children will remain with their fathers if the mother is incarcerated, but nearly 9 out 10 of children remain with their mothers when the father is incarcerated.27 In addition, we are incarcerating more and more of our young adults with dependent children. The median age of prisoners in California is 35 years for men and 36 years for women.28

Alternative sentencing is appropriate for many women caught in the criminal justice system. Two-thirds of the women in California prisons were incarcerated for non-violent crimes.29 The majority of these women had been either unemployed or in low-paying jobs before their arrest, and 30% of female inmates report receiving welfare just before arrest.30 Most have been physically or sexually abused at some time.31

Grandparents Continue to Step In

Grandparents and other relative caregivers will continue to play a significant role in raising children of incarcerated parents and helping to heal the wounds in families for many years to come. We hope this manual will be of use to them.


Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
1540 Market St., Suite 490  •  San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 255-7036  •