IFETAYO HARVEY: My father was convicted of cocaine trafficking, and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
That's the voice of Ifetayo Harvey, a twenty-two-year-old who lives in Charleston, South Carolina. She's one of millions of young people who grew up with a parent in prison.
HARVEY: My dad went to prison when I was four years old. And he was released when I was twelve.
RATH: Of course, Ifetayo hadn't done anything wrong. But like many children with incarcerated parent, she suffered for her father's crime. That's our cover story today - the effect on kids and families when a parent goes to prison. At first, Ifetayo didn't know her dad was in prison.
HARVEY: I noticed that my dad was gone for a while. But because my parents weren't married and they never lived together, I assumed that he would be back. I started receiving letters from him. And I noticed that the letters had like really, really long numbers and codes. And I thought, maybe he lives in an apartment complex. But I think it was around maybe first or second grade when my mom told me that my dad was in prison.
RATH: And how did you react to that? What was that like for you to hear?
HARVEY: I was really sad about it. In his letters, he told me that he loved me. He really cared about me. So it was kind of a contradiction with him not being there and me having to deal with a lot of depression or shame. It was just a really confusing time period, I guess.
RATH: A recent study from the National Academy of Sciences examined the growth of incarceration in the United States. Jeremy Travis is one of the authors of the report. Among other questions, they were asked to study the effects of incarceration on children and the families of those in prison. Amazingly, no one's really studied this before.
JEREMY TRAVIS: We would say to the committee that there's actually not enough research on this entire phenomenon. For 50 years, from 1920 to the early 1970s, the rate of incarceration in America was stable. In 1972, it started to go up and went up for the next 40 years, quadrupling over four decades. So this is important social question, for our democracy, which is not getting enough attention from the research community, not because there's not enough interest, but because we've not been willing to pay for it.
RATH: Based on what you were able review, do you have a sense of how the numbers of children with incarcerated parents has changed over the decades?
TRAVIS: The numbers are quite staggering. In 1970s or so, there were 350,000 minors who had a parent in prison. And now it's well over 2 million. And that simply tracks the fact that we're putting more people in prison, and the consequences of that are pretty profound, we think, although they're not as well documented as they should be.
RATH: It seems there are some consistent observations about the effects of children and families. Can you tell us what we do know?
TRAVIS: So we know that there's, for example, higher rates of homelessness among families when the father is incarcerated. There are poor developmental outcomes for those minor children. We know there's greater family instability. We know that there are significant racial disparities - the rate among the African-American communities in our country is seven times higher than among the white children in our country.
RATH: So is there a way break that cycle?
TRAVIS: The first way to start to deal with this problem is to have fewer people in prison. But there will always be people in prison. And we should pay attention to the collateral consequences of incarcerating those - particularly those who are parents. And young people often end up in foster care. They have difficulties in school - attachment to their peers.
And all of those difficulties present challenges for the communities, the educators and social workers and the police officers and the family members to surround that young person with support and make sure that they are given that support as they go through a very difficult time as their parents are taken off to prison.
RATH: Ifetayo is one of the lucky ones. She had the help and support of a larger extended family. She says she had positive role models, who stood in sharp contrast to the example her father had set.
HARVEY: Maybe, even, my dad being incarcerated motivated me to do the best that I could in school, so something like that wouldn't happen to me or anyone that I knew.
RATH: But in so many other ways, Ifetayo suffered from the problems laid out in the NAS study. Her father was in a prison in a different state. There were no visits, no phone calls even. The absence of her father was a big burden on her mom.
HARVEY: My mom is a single parent of seven kids. And once my dad went away, this put a really big financial strain on my family. And naturally, she was very angry about the situation that she found herself in.
RATH: You know, you said you felt depressed and shame. Was this something that you shared with your friends, What was going on?
HARVEY: Oh no. When some of my classmates in elementary school would ask me - what does your dad do? - most of the time, I made up things to avoid having to explain. But I do recall one time when I told a friend that he was in prison. And they were like, whoa, your dad's in prison? He's a bad guy. It's hard to explain that to people because there is such a heavy stigma against people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated.
RATH: You know, what your parents do for a living, it can affect your perspective on the world. How do you think your dad's situation has changed your perspective?
HARVEY: Oh wow. It's changed my perspective a lot. Lately, I've been really trying to focus on the positive aspects. And I know that sounds weird, but I think having an incarcerated parent really teaches you to empathize more and understand people from different angle.
RATH: Her dad was deported back to Jamaica after he was released. Ifetayo saved up enough money to make a trip there to visit, when she was sixteen - twelve years after she had last seen him.
HARVEY: It was a good experience. You know, it was a little awkward at some points, but...
HARVEY: ... I was willing to rebuild our relationship. And it's good for what it is. My dad calls me like once or twice a week, or so.
RATH: Ifetayo just graduated from Smith College and now wants to pursue a Masters in social work. Her dad's experience gave her a passion for social justice, and she's no longer ashamed to talk about this part of her life.
HARVEY: I get power from speaking the truth of my story to others. I think, once you realize that you're not alone in your struggle, it's easier to heal.
RATH: Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
HARVEY: Thank you for having me, Arun.
RATH: This is NPR News.