All Alone in the World
by Nell Bernstein

Basic Books, 2006      250 pages

Review by Jeffrey Hillard March 2008


California journalist and activist, Nell Bernstein, has written a definitive account of the unquestionable epidemic of the children of incarcerated parents.

We are at a crossroads as a society: with the reality that our prisons and jails are so severely overcrowded comes the totally overlooked fact that a majority of inmates have children, and, according to statistics that reveal the crisis, these children are becoming increasingly alienated. 

All Alone in the World is a must-read. 

The wake-up call principles that Bernstein explores emerge out of her commitment to travel and research to uncover the truth about this epidemic. There is a very good chance, according to Bureau of Justice statistics, that one out of ten children you encounter has had or has a parent – even a loved one – incarcerated, on probation, or on parole.

You do not have to be an official in a government agency or with the criminal justice system to understand how desperate these children are for affection and understanding, and how desperately inmates in jails and prisons struggle to stay in touch with their children. You don’t have to be connected with academia or politics to fathom how difficult it must be for a child to grow up knowing his father and/or mother is incarcerated.  All Alone in the World is a human story as much as it is cultural reportage.

And it’s not cliché to conclude from Nell Bernstein’s excellent chronicling of this crisis that we’re “losing the kids” at a blistering pace. In spite of social agency initiatives designed to help children of the incarcerated, there’s still the disconnection, the isolation, and the confusion between inmates and their children’s progress.

Bernstein works beyond statistics to give us the inside human story. Her research is comprehensive and conclusive. She spent years traveling the country meeting with incarcerated parents, children of incarcerated parents, judges, attorneys, jail and prison officials, community and civic officials, and academics studying this phenomenon.

All Alone is the World is wisely divided into chapters that look chronologically at arrests, sentencing, visitation, families’ adjustments to incarceration, and needed policy changes, and these chapters provide a shocking cumulative effect. The book balances a trio of themes: personal stories of inmates and their children and grandchildren, Bernstein’s views on how to address the crisis, and data reflecting the urgent need to make adjustments in the system to better accommodate visiting privileges and aftercare of the children whose parents become incarcerated.

Of the approximately 2.2 million individuals incarcerated in the U.S., three-quarters of inmates are incarcerated for non-violent crimes. About one-half of the young men whose parents are incarcerated will wind up in jail or prison – an astounding statistic. So many facts go totally under the radar, Bernstein notes, with respect to children of the incarcerated: many of these children, for example, suffer from anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress (PTS) syndrome; protocol is often missing in law enforcement as to what to do with the children once an arrest is made of one or both parents, often leaving the children alone; and typically, there’s little opportunity for children to really talk to their incarcerated parent, because of the extravagant costs of phone calls.

Bernstein has much to say about these phone calls. In most cases, inmates can place only collect calls. It gets terribly expensive for someone to accept a call. Phone companies pay large fees to exclusively contract with incarceration facilities. For instance, California nets $35 million each year in phone company commissions. A collect call from an inmate costs the recipient $6.00 per minute in many states.

Bernstein skillfully lets numbers and data amplify the effects they have on especially the children. She has ingratiated herself with families to understand their difficulties, and not to minimize the jail or prison sentence of a parent, or to patronize their plights. We learn how important Danielle Merz’s faith is and the fact that, although incarcerated, she never stops reaching or believing in her children. Bernstein explores how Danielle’s son’s illustrious rap career has allowed him a creative outlet in which to channel his frustration and to find a deeper relationship with God. We come to understand how Jomo, Samuel, Donna, and other incarcerated individuals deal with strict visitation limits and still maintain relationships with their children.

One of the more engaging stories involves Theresa Azhocar, a grandmother who must raise her daughter Roxanne’s children while Roxanne is in prison and just after her husband’s sudden death. Ultimately, her faith in God and her ability to manage on a minimal income for many years gave her an inner strength that is more than impressive, as Bernstein unsentimentally characterizes Theresa’s triumph over hardship and her positive influence on her grandchildren.

All Alone in the World rightly stresses that these children deserve more rights that they seem to be denied. Bernstein advocates creating a “mirandize-like” bill of rights for the children of incarcerated parents, where a law enforcement official “reads” language to them that might include, “You have the right to be safe, the right to see a parent, and a right to be cared for, etc.”  In other words, these rights should be made clear to children once their parent is arrested.

Also, Bernstein supports a proposal by the Yale Child Study Center that calls “least detrimental alternatives” for the children of incarcerated parents. These alternatives include a three-pronged effort to 1) protect and inform children at the time of a parent’s arrest; 2) provide a humane environment for them; and 3) provide resources to the person to care for the child or children of an incarcerated parent.

Although Bernstein paints a bleak picture of the loneliness of incarceration and among many children who yearn for their parents, she rewards us with positive glances toward great programs, such as Arkansas Voices for the Children Left Behind, that are full-time advocates for these children and their imprisoned parents. Arkansas Voices focuses on connecting children to incarcerated parents by providing mentoring to children, support groups, and lobbying for the rights of these children and their parents and grandparents.

National awareness of this phenomenon is growing. Social agencies are getting more involved. Politicians are more inclined to grasp the how’s and why’s of crime statistics. As a society, we’re paying more attention to at-risk youth, many of whom have parents locked up. Nell Bernstein has heightened this awareness with the significant All Alone in the World, a book whose human characterizations and political slant should be taken extremely seriously.

A New Kind of Normal




For related stories about children of incarcerated parents in this issue see

Oyler School - Stopping the Cycle of Poverty


Fragments of Motherhood in Action Words.