The Impact of Incarceration on Siblings

Glancing out my cell window,

as grainy salty tears drown my eyes to a blur.

One flows its way down my cheek              so                     slow

like rain on a window until it falls off my chin,

piercing my soul, reminiscing about my time growing up with my brothers.


I'm the oldest of three boys.

I hold this guilt

for taking our time together for granted

for leaving them to grow up without a positive role model

like an older brother should have.


Instead they have to visit their big brother in prison

With so many restrictions and limited time to show their support for so many years.

At the moment the youngest doesn't understand

With his age

I have time to explain once I'm released.


But my other brother has explained to me

he doesn't have any resentment against me

he forgives me for leaving them

he understands I was a lost teenager

with so much anger against the world that led me to hurt another human being


I was sentenced to 93 to 123 months to prison.

I was in a gang at a young age

I let myself to choose the gang over my brothers

I thought

they were my family.


my brothers saw how the gang life affected me

and my family

I'm happy my brothers chose a better path

than to follow mine.


Today I can say I have changed in a tremendous way

I denounced the gang and destructive lifestyle

but it isn't enough for me

I hunger for change not in my life

but for the future generation


For more young individuals graduating high schools and colleges

not graduating from juvi to prison





If we continue to let our young brothers to fight the war alone

we will have more prisons then schools.


Take what I have been through


These could be your brothers

being left to grow up without their older brother either dead or in prison...


This is my MISSION so just BLINK the tears away...

--Mato Cikala


We have discussed the negative effects of parental incarceration on children, but have explored less the impact incarceration has on siblings. Mato Cikala (“Little Bear”), also known as Daniel Loera, has shared his words with us before. I met Mato Cikala in 2015. His counselors at the juvenile detention facility he was housed were trying all they could do to get him released to the community instead of adult prison. As a young Latinx father was incarcerated at 16 years-old he made huge strides towards turning his life around. His counselors knew many of the rehabilitative measures that exist (even if they still need improvement) are not a goal of adult prisons systems which are more focused on corrections. The impacts of incarceration on his family are those he wishes no other family has to go through. He believes that they won’t if people truly listen to stories like his.

Although we don’t have definitive numbers of siblings left behind, we can imagine that the number is great when on any given night an estimated 47,000 young people are incarcerated, and nationwide, 200,000 young people are tried, sentenced, or incarcerated every year. A 2006 study by Louise Tickle in the United Kingdom estimated that annually, 35,000 children may be affected by sibling incarceration. Like Mato Cikala, 69% of these young people are people of color. A few blogs have poignantly raised the issue. One online faith-based publication connected it to the school to prison pipeline and the need to close youth prisons, while other blogs have recounted detaieled personal stories of sibling’s experiences.

However, very little research and resources are aimed at addressing or exploring the impact or points of intervention to help siblings at home cope with the grief and loss of a sibling to incarceration. In addition to the UK study mentioned above, in 2008 Rosie Meek found that similar to parental incarceration, sibling incarceration creates a traumatic disruption of the family unit, is fraught with feelings of shame, includes reluctance to disclose information to teachers and peers, and leads youth to have negative perceptions of their own behavior. Louise Tickle’s study found that siblings experience:

  • fears of abandonment,
  • distress of missing someone you love,
  • responsibility of “staying strong,”
  • lack of a usual support from the sibling who is now incarcerated
  • keeping quiet at school due to the stigma that attaches to prisons.

Also similar to children of incarcerated parents, siblings with incarcerated siblings are hard to identify due to the stigmatization and stereotyping of families involved in the justice system. One of the few studies preliminary studies done to address this issue in the United States was done by Katie Heaton, B.S., “The Sibling Experience: Grief and Coping with Sibling Incarceration.” Heaton calls for more research to be done on the impact of both the incarcerated and non-incarcerated sibling. The study is limited in that it was a clinical research project, and that it relied on interviews with practitioners working with families and not the young people themselves. However, the study shows the importance of increasing future study that considers the effects of this grief and loss. Heaton found that most often, practitioners are focused on the mother-child relationship. Also, the length of time a professional works with the young person who is incarcerated also had an impact on which family members were involved in the professional’s work and how often. Thus, signaling the importance of continued and consistent professionals in an incarcerated young person’s life. Further, it was identified that the lack of contact between siblings creates more conflict and less opportunities for reconciliation, and even internalizing behavior for the sibling left behind as they feel that any conflict is their fault. Heaton points to implications for social work practice which include the need to acknowledge theory of grief and loss as well as the recognition of the impact that a crime has on families as a system and the need to create therapeutic settings for families to discuss these issues meaningfully. Also, of importance is the recognition that practitioners can serve to support the individual agency of the siblings left behind by ensuring avenues for them to voice their needs.

From these findings and from Daniel’s words, as we continue to create programs for families to ensure positive outcomes and end mass incarceration, this gap in study reveals that it would serve us to ensure that we are viewing the family as a whole and recognizing the direct impacts incarceration has on siblings.

Riley Hewko, Esq. featuring poem by Incarcerated Father Mato Cikala


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Monthly Feature

Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People's Movement Western Regional Conference

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Formerly incarcerated and convicted people, family members, community and spiritual leaders, elected officials and government employees will all come together to strengthen our relationships and work towards making change through community empowerment. We invite you to Voice your opinion, learn your rights and learn what changes we can make together. All of Us or None Contact: (415)-255-7036 ext. 337