In 2017, recording artist Meek Mill was sentenced to two years in prison for violating the terms of a probation agreement he’d been subject to his entire adult life. His prison sentence—imposed, in effect, for riding a dirt bike—prompted widespread outrage. It also inspired the launch this July of the REFORM Alliance by a set of prominent innovators and social investors including Van Jones, Jay-Z, and the owners of several NBA teams.

As Mill and his advocates point out, millions of Americans are #StillNotFree; that is, they are subject to probation or parole decisions that can wreak sudden, disproportionate havoc in their lives. To date, how these systems affect children has been too little discussed. Our ten-year study of incarcerated fathers and their families—recounted in our newly released book, Holding On—begins to shed some light.

One in seven men in the study (14%) was in prison due to a technical violation of parole or probation. Qualitative interviews with fathers and their primary parenting partners suggested that parole and probation decisions played a powerful and painful role in children’s lives.

Parole Board Decisions

During incarceration, fathers participated in numerous programs and work opportunities with a focus on getting home to their children as soon as possible. But the actual timing of their release was often outside of their control, in the hands of a parole board.

I would always tell [my sons], like, “Man, I will be home to see you graduate.” This was even when they was young. Like, “Man, by the time you graduate, I will be there. I will see you walk that stage.” So finally, that time came…Long story short, they didn’t let me out. They gave me four more years. So, I had to get on the phone, and I remember I called them and my son, the one that is in jail now, he was crying so bad. And he was like, he just kept, he said, “Dad, I don’t care no more.” I said, “What you mean?” He said, “I don’t care, I don’t care. Man, mommy out here on crack, you in there, you got to do four more. Man, I can’t do this no more. I am done. I am done. It is over.”…And he just spiraled down after that.

This uncertainty and lack of control often had excruciating consequences for parent-child relationships and for children’s well-being.

Revocation to Prison

Fathers who did make it home to their children after an incarceration often brought tremendous energy and excitement to the task of reuniting. Yet as their co-parents observed, fathers’ efforts to catch up to their children’s development, new routines, and evolving personalities after the long absence could be daunting.

He is like, “I came home, she got breasts, butt, she got a period. When I left, she was just a little baby in pampers.”

It is kind of like being in a dark space…You know, like being in a coma and waking up and [his son] is 15. And I think that puts a lot of stress between the two of them.

As they worked to relearn their children’s needs, heal their relationships, and build a reliable presence in their day-to-day lives, parents on probation or parole lived in constant awareness that they might be returned to prison on seemingly trivial grounds.

I would love to grow old and watch my children grow up and graduate and maybe have grandkids one day and stuff like that.  But how can I ever do that if I don’t get a chance…you know what I mean? It is crooked, man. There is no job opportunities out there for us. There is no living arrangements out there for us.  And then…all you would have to do is call my P.O. and make up something and they send you back to prison.

Probation and parole officers occupied a visible and fearsome place in family life. Parents observed that older children were acutely aware that fathers on probation or parole could be sent to prison at any time. Data suggest that this awareness placed a wedge between many fathers and their older children.

You’ve got to earn their trust again. That was the hardest part right there, earning her trust. Earning my oldest daughter’s trust, anyway. My other two, they flock to me because they—you know, they’re still little. But my oldest, she think I was going to be back out here on that law ride again.

Perhaps as a result, our quantitative models indicated that re-entering fathers of older children experienced lower-quality relationships with their children, and spent quality time with them less frequently, compared to fathers of younger children.

Maintaining—Or Losing—Hope During Reentry

For many returning parents, the joy and responsibility of parenthood and the opportunity of “being there” for children in a way that they could not from prison motivated their persistence through a difficult reentry process. Reentering parents faced formidable and sometimes insurmountable barriers to employment, housing, and material stability. For these parents, the suddenness and seeming unfairness of parole and probation revocation often created a sense that all of their efforts were futile.

I get [taken] away from my family, my children, everybody who care about me, who will believe in me, who keep telling me to keep doing right and keep my head up afloat. Now, I have to come back [to prison]…It makes you overlook the five little young faces that I do have looking up to me…it beats you down, man…it takes away your self-respect.  It takes away your self-esteem, your self encouragement. It takes all of that from you.

Such losses extinguished many parents’ sense of control over the one thing in their lives that had kept them going and given them hope. What’s worse, probation and parole revocations like these likely confirmed many older children’s fears of losing their fathers to prison.

There is much we still don’t know about how parents’ experiences with probation and parole affect children. But it’s clear that until we end the mass use (and abuse) of probation and parole, millions of American children—disproportionately low-income children of color—are #StillNotFree.