All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated
Nell Bernstein’s All Alone in the World takes a deep look at the shortcomings of the U.S. judicial system and offers a number of alternatives. Though this book could have easily become a collection of complaints, Bernstein avoids evoking feelings of despair about a system that is too far gone to repair or feelings of pity for children punished by their parents’ bad choices. Instead, she has woven a story of hope—a hope that these children don’t have to suffer alone, that these parents can make better choices with the right supports, that these families and their communities can be more strongly united, and that the prison system can again become a rehabilitative place.
Bernstein has done her research, visiting prisons and alternative programs around the country and interviewing prisoners and their families. Through the intense and moving stories of these people, Bernstein takes you through the criminal-justice system, from arrest to re-entry and all the complicated steps in between. In doing so, she illustrates the strengths and shortcomings of today’s criminal-justice system as it relates not only to the prisoners themselves but also, and possibly more importantly, as it relates to their kids.
Take, for example, the story of Elizabeth, who was arrested for shoplifting and had a history of drug-related offenses, and her son Anthony. After attempting to get off drugs, find permanent housing, and hold down a steady job while combating long waiting lists, low income, and difficulty finding work, Elizabeth failed to get her life in order within the court-appointed time period. Her parental rights were terminated permanently and, three years after her arrest, Anthony was placed for adoption and hasn’t seen his mother since.
Bernstein argues that laws meant to protect children from drugs and crime have instead torn families apart and encouraged a cycle of imprisonment that won’t easily be broken. Due to recent changes in sentencing laws—such as the “three strikes” law, first introduced in California but now on the books in some form in 25 states—an increasing number of women are serving extended sentences for nonviolent crimes. Bernstein questions the effectiveness of this mandatory sentencing and recommends rehabilitation and early intervention as alternatives. She provides multiple examples of programs—such as the Oregon Social Learning Center, California’s Family Foundations program, and New York’s La Bodega de la Familia re-entry assistance program—that work to decrease recidivism and increase successful re-entry.
According to Bernstein’s findings, one in 33 U.S. children, and one in eight African-American children, has an incarcerated parent: “The good news is that children [of incarcerated parents] can do much more than tell us where it hurts. They offer both the insight and the impetus we need to rethink criminal justice—to create a system that protects children, rehabilitates parents, and promotes public safety.” Building this new system requires innovation and creativity, but even more so it takes a desire to care for those left behind in their parents’ crimes’ wakes.