• Dr. Britany Gatewood

The Educational Attainment of COIP is Not What You Think

He used to help me with my homework over the phone. Yeah, he helped me with my homework from elementary on up, middle school.

-Female, 27, Louisiana

Parental incarceration affects over six million children; however, their voices are often marginalized in educational research. When children of incarcerated parents (COIP) enter the conversation, it is typically through a deficit-based lens; which includes behavioral concerns, low graduation rates, substandard test scores, and the propensity to follow their parents. Criminological research has a history of wanting to only view this population through a pessimistic and racist analysis. Therefore, the majority of educational research use this negative framework and does not include those that do not touch the system.

Many COIP graduate from high school and go on to matriculate through college, and even graduate and professional educational programs. Within our study alone, the majority of participants have a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 37% are currently in school to obtain a higher degree. Of the 15 participants with only high school diplomas, the majority (60%) are in school for a bachelor’s degree. Five (31%) of the 16 participants who have master’s degrees were currently in graduate school for a Ph.D. or obtaining a second master's degree. These demographics are in direct opposition to the themes and findings within mainstream research.

Incarcerated parents are often labeled as negative role models because they have committed a crime. However, participants not only showed close relationships with their incarcerated parents, but also how they encouraged them to succeed in school. Parenting strategies behind bars include studying with their children during visits or over the phone, knowledge of their child’s deadlines, reminding their children upcoming projects, being aware of how classes are going, and encouraging them to excel in their studies. Although incarcerated parents tend to have lower education levels than their children, that does not inhibit them from encouraging their children to seek educational opportunities. Parents, despite their incarceration, were present in the lives of their children and encouraged education. Parental incarceration often motivated COIP to live a life that is opposite of their parent because they saw first hand the detrimental consequences of life behind bars.

Education has long been considered a pathway to success. This study showed that participants and their incarcerated parents were aware of the importance of education in their future success. Through our research we have seen that their educational successes are often influenced positively by their incarcerated parent. Participants’ college majors, Master’s theses, PhD dissertations, and law degrees were influenced by parental incarceration. This sample desired to work, research, and study in areas surrounding the criminology, sociology, social inequality, and/or social services. They often stated that this was because of their incarcerated parent.

Within our interviews, the participants spoke more to how class and race influenced their time within the educational system than parental incarceration. Negative narratives and racially discriminatory policies use the school to prison pipeline to increase the likelihood of Black children of incarcerated parents entering the criminal (in)justice system. Research shows that when we view the educational attainment of COIP, we must also consider environmental factors outside parental incarceration. Race, gender, location, and socioeconomic status impact educational success. It could be argued that social identities are a larger influencer to educational attainment than parental incarceration. The notion that incarcerated Black parents are responsible for the “educational demise” of their children detracts from the societal influences of racism, classism, and sexism on the educational system. This places the blame on a community and not the surrounding infrastructure.

As this area of educational research emerges as grows, researchers should begin to see the successes of children of incarcerated parents and not just the negative picture we have chosen to assess.

Study updates visit:

Dr. Britany J Gatewood

Post Doctoral Researcher, Center for Educational Opportunity

Twitter and IG: @drbjgate

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