The Damnedest Things Some Parents Do

The fallout when prison and family life intersect

The temptation strikes and it seems so perfect and plausible a solution. No one will ever find out. Besides, everyone’s breaking the rules.

Errors in thinking like these can lead down a slippery slope. In psychology it’s referred to magical thinking, and the irrational beliefs are normally met with a reality check.

Crime does not pay. The toll when brought to justice is heavy whether the sentence is at a penitentiary or a federal prison camp. The ramifications of incarceration extend far beyond prison affecting family members at home where lives are unmistakably changed forever.

At a Fatherhood Town Hall event in Atlanta, then U. S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke, saying, “People sometimes make bad choices. As a result, they end up in prison or jail. But we can’t permit incarceration of a parent to punish an entire family.”

The sad and harsh reality is these families are all serving a sentence, the innocents having done nothing wrong at all. From the time of arrest and lasting beyond incarceration, the collateral and unpleasant consequences affect not only the offender but also their children, families, and friends.

Sentences are handed down by judges to punish offenders for their crimes but also serve to deter others from committing similar crimes. No judge takes pleasure in sending a parent off to prison separating them from their kids. Nevertheless society must be protected and for the greater good they will.

Take the case of Mathew Martoma, the former SAC Capital portfolio manager, when he was sentenced not long ago to nine years in federal prison for his part in the largest insider trading case in U.S. history.

Martoma’s attorneys raised his family ties and being a father of three young children, as lawyers often will do at sentencing, hoping for compassion and leniency. But New York U.S. District Court Judge Gardephe wasn’t swayed, saying the sums of Martoma’s crimes were, “staggering and the punishment must be sufficient to deter others.” He pointed out that Martoma had committed his crimes all the while having a family and young children, and added, “serious crimes of this sort cannot be excused merely because he has a family.” Judge Gardephe seemed to reason that Martoma knew the risks he was taking and he alone was responsible for the consequences to his family’s well-being and stability. The 41-year-old Mathew Martoma is serving his sentence in Miami and is scheduled to be released in September 2021.

Families often struggle with the social stigma of criminal prosecution and incarceration, shame and other hardships. Marc Dreier, a prominent New York lawyer convicted in 2009 of running a multimillion-dollar investment fraud and sentenced to 20 years, penned an open letter to his sentencing judge, revealing, “My children have lost the father they knew, as well as their good name and the happiness they deserve.”

It isn’t only fathers going off to prison, more and more women are being incarcerated at alarming rates. The Sentencing Project reported that the number of women in prison increased by 587% between 1980 and 2011. Although it is still rare, there are increasing cases where both parents are convicted and leave behind young children, as did Andrew and Lea Fastow of the Enron scandal and reality TV star Teresa Giudice and her husband Joe, serving time away in prison. The Fastow’s and Giudice’s were fortunate to strike deals where one parent served their sentence while the other stayed with the children.

The fallout from having a parent in prison also burdens families economically and psychologically. With less money and daunting challenges, the remaining caregiver will try their best to take care of themselves and their children. Overwhelmed and unsteady with being a new ‘single parent’, frequently the children’s emotional needs are unmet.

The disruption to family life by separation from incarceration is severe and can be lifelong. The loss of a parent can be as traumatic to a child as when a parent dies or there is a divorce. Yet these families and children find little support and sympathy otherwise given families experiencing loss or separation.

Children’s problems are worsened when labeled and targeted by their peers for having a parent in prison. Children can be singled out and bullied furthering feelings of isolation and shame, which likely will lead to a child becoming severely depressed.

Like adults, children feeling in pain will seek out ways to numb out and are at risk for using alcohol and drugs. Teen experimentation with substances is always a concern, but those who come from a family in crisis and without sufficient support are especially vulnerable. Children who begin using drugs or alcohol before age 15 are 6 ½ times as likely to become addicted as those who delay use after age 21.

Families bear the burden of a parent’s crimes, prosecution and imprisonment. In my experience as a psychotherapist and advisor to these families I have witnessed up close the upheaval brought upon lives. The harm done to family members can be devastating, far-reaching and in many cases irreversible. It hurts all families, tears apart some, and yet can also be a time for rebuilding for those families fortunate to have the proper support and guidance.

A warning would not be complete without also pointing out why people choose to engage in criminal behavior. Unlike street crime that is normally impulse driven, the decision to engage in white-collar crime evolves over time. A person doesn’t just wake up one morning to go to work and choose to put it all on the line for the “big score.”

Most people are unaware of the emotions that drive them to achieve. When these forces go unchecked and are not sufficiently and carefully examined the results sometimes can be disastrous both personally and professionally.

The hidden and disowned parts of ourselves will always find a way to surface making them known. In Why Good People Do Bad Things, Debbie Ford compared the struggle to suppress the dark side with the energy it takes to keep an inflated beach ball under water.

The “beach-ball effect” is what happens when repressed emotions such as shame, fear, envy, and anger are not constructively accepted and embraced that blow up sabotaging ourselves and hurting the people we care most about.

In spite the best of intentions, seemingly good people do very bad things. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung spoke of the dualistic nature of the human mind warning, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”


Andrew Snyder is a marriage and family therapist, prison advisor and executive coach. He is the host of the popular Prison Life podcast focusing on crime, punishment, and family.

Psychotherapist, prison advisor, executive coach. Podcaster: Prison Life.