Marginalized Families Are Hit Hardest by Incarceration Beyond Prison Walls

Mary Estrada (56), met her husband Robert when she was just 10 years old. He was 9. They have been together all their lives, but have also spent many years apart physically.

Robert Estrada’s contact with the criminal legal system began early, with time in the city’s juvenile detention facility that ignited a cycle of incarceration. Currently he is serving a 52-year sentence at the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, more than two hours from Estrada’s home in Pomona, California.

Over the decades, Estrada said she has remained her husband’s steadfast support system. Each weekend, she drives 135 m to visit Robert. She calls Robert at least once per day, sometimes twice, at a rate around $2 per 15 minutes. She ensures that Estrada’s money is available for him to purchase the things he requires. Estrada also paid his $10,000 restitution fee.

“If I can go back all the way to 18 years old, I’d be a billionaire with all the money that I’ve spent just following him and just, you know, being with him,” Estrada told The 19th. “It’s been a hard journey. It’s been a long journey. It’s been a long journey. I love him.”

Estrada’s experience is one familiar to many women with incarcerated romantic partners, co-parents or family members. According to the Essie Justice Group (a California-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of women with incarcerated loved one), approximately 1 in 4 American women have a family member in prison. People of color, Latinx, and low income are more likely than others to have come in contact with the criminal justice system.

Essie and the Prison Policy Initiative (a research nonprofit) have co-authored a new report that provides more insight into which California counties and which neighborhoods are most affected by incarceration. According to their analysis publishedLate August saw high incarceration rates in areas such as Los Angeles County where Estrada and her spouse are from. There are also a few smaller counties.

Overall, Los Angeles County has an imprisonment rate of 402 per 100,000 residents, but it is the highest — approximately 773 to 1,093 per 100,000 residents — in the neighborhoods of South Central L.A., where 57 percent of residents are Latino and 38 percent are Black.

Los Angeles and other urban counties have the highest prison population. Communities of color are more likely than others to experience poverty and lack of investment. overpolicing and racial profilingThey contribute to mass incarceration.

These communities suffer emotionally and economically from high imprisonment rates. A staggering 93 percent of prisoners are in prison. incarcerated people are menMore than half of them are fathers. Many women have to manage their families alone.

“I think what is a bit less obvious to people is all the costs that are associated with incarceration, and how women disproportionately share or the burden of those costs of their loved ones,” said Kristin Turney, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Estrada, who is an accountant, spent close to $2,000 per month to help her husband. She added that this was in addition to what she spent each month on her housing, food, and commuting. That’s money that could have gone toward her family, her savings, or her community.

The Estradas’ 32-year-old daughter also felt the toll. Robert was incarcerated most of her adult life. Mary Estrada recalls asking her daughter what memories she has of her childhood. Her daughter’s response was “nothing,” followed by her recollections of being taken to see her dad two hours away every weekend.

For women and children generally, Turney’s research indicates that the accumulation of these various challenges can lead to further economic hardship for women who are already more likely to be low income. It can also lead increase stress and mental health issues that can affect your physical well being.

The analysis shows that these stresses have a wide impact on families beyond the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Many smaller, rural California counties have high imprisonment rates. Kings County, which has fewer than 100,000 residents, has the highest prison rate in California with 666 inmates per 100,000.

“The notion of mass incarceration as a problem of big cities: That’s a myth,” said Mike Wessler, the communications director for the Prison Policy Initiative. “When you sit back and think about what’s going on in a lot of these rural communities you realize that a lot of the challenges — things like a lack of economic opportunity, untreated mental health issues, addiction issues — a lot of them are similar to those happening in bigger cities as well.”

California’s high incarceration rates in rural areas reflect national trends. In fact, the jump in incarceration rates among women in particular has been fueled by the country’s smallest counties.

The Essie Justice Group and Prison Policy Initiative’s breakdown of the state’s California imprisonment rates was possible due to recent changes in how the state reports its incarcerated residents.

Most states consider incarcerated persons to be residents of the county where they are imprisoned rather than their origin counties. This can lead to the loss of political power for communities of color as states redraw their legislative and congressional maps every ten years based upon Census data.

California is one of about a dozen states around the country that has ended this “prison gerrymandering” and counts incarcerated people as residents of the counties they came from. The Prison Policy Initiative has partnered up with other organizations in each of these. states to produce reportsAmong others, Nevada, Colorado and Washington.

Wessler stated that having this data available will allow researchers to see a greater picture of past investments and disinvestments in certain regions. It will also highlight regions that require more resources for people who have been previously incarcerated and are trying to reenter the society.

“We know where people who have been incarcerated are most likely to return to, so where can states and local governments invest dollars to make sure that when somebody leaves prison, they’re able to find a home, find a job and build communities that support connection?” Wessler said. “We know that without those things, people are much more likely to end up behind bars again.”

Estrada stated that she wants to see more women, including those who are romantic partners or family members of the incarcerated get support. She is currently the administrator of the Facebook group CDCR: Families & Loved Ones for the Incarcerated. It has helped her find community and understanding.

Turney said that while some women may decide to end romantic relationships with incarcerated people, many, like Estrada chose to stay for a variety of reasons. These include feeling closer to their partners and the experience.

Despite the difficulties Estrada has faced over the years, she believes she’s “destined” to be with Robert. “I wouldn’t trade him in. I love him,” she said. “I don’t see my thoughts with anybody else. Only him. Even doing this journey, you know, it only makes us stronger.”