Prisons Need ‘Child-Friendly’ Facilities for Incarcerated Parents: Study

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parent and child

Photo by 00abstrahiert via flickr

Should parents who are locked up also be locked away from their kids?

If the answer is “no,” then how much time should incarcerated parents be permitted to have with their children—and how could they use that time?

With over one million parents behind bars, the question is critical for the long-term health of their children—estimated at between 1.5 million and 2.3 million, according to a recent study published in the Florida Law Review.

“The long-term impact of incarceration on children depends on a variety of factors, including their age,” said the authors of the study, entitled, The Intersection of Juvenile Justice and Early Childhood: How to Maximize Family Engagement.

“Separation due to parental incarceration can affect the attachment between parent and child, which has been linked to poor child outcomes, including poor peer relationships and cognitive abilities.”

According to figures cited by the authors, the number of children with at least one parent incarcerated has ”risen sharply” over the past decade. The majority of the incarcerated parents are fathers, but the number of incarcerated mothers has more than doubled.

The researchers focused on methods authorities can take to improve the quality of family engagement, which they defined as “the systemic inclusion of family in activities that promote children’s development and overall well-being, including the planning, structure, implementation and evaluation of these activities.”

Accordingly, authorities should treat families as “partners,” involving them as a unit in all justice processes, the researchers said.

The researchers provided a list of programs that they said serve as models of engagement for families of the incarcerated.

The programs included religious nonprofits such as the non-profit Jewish organization, The Aleph Institute. Even the Girl Scouts has a program, which includes seeking to help parents and daughters participate in organized discussions about family life, conflict resolution, and violence and drug abuse prevention.

Programs administered by the federal Bureau of Prisons include education to parents, teaching living skills, and literacy-building services at a number of institutions.

But there are many other models.

The Middletown Press, a daily newspaper in Connecticut, reported on a program called Women Overcoming Recidivism Through Hard Work, or W.O.R.T.H. After a two-week orientation of the program, mentees choose a family member, teacher, or “other supportive person” for help.

Under the program, a counselor can share observations of a prisoner with the person chosen. The counselor and the chosen person can then offer feedback and brainstorm solutions, said the paper.

Montana State Prison increased family visitation days from two to four per week, with scheduling on a first-come basis and reservations required at least seven days prior, reported the Great Falls Tribune.

In Louisville, Ky., a YMCA program called Y-NOW mentors youth ages 11-15 who have a parent that has been in jail. Youth are referred into the free program by their family, school or others.

Improving family engagement can start at birth. In many facilities, babies born to incarcerated pregnant mothers are taken away within 48 to 72 hours and sent to either a relative or foster care, but some prisons have changed their approach, NBC News reported.

In the Bedford Hills, N.Y., women’s prison, infants are allowed to remain with their mothers in a prison nursery until the infants reach one year–or even 18 months–of age. The nursery is separated from the general population, and each mom receives a cot and her own small cell, where she sleeps inches from her child’s crib.

The Florida Law Review study recommended a series of approaches other facilities could take to broaden family engagement. Recommendations included:

      • Creating more child-friendly environments inside prisons
      • Supplementing in-person family interactions with video communications;
      • Providing adequate legal representation that includes focusing on family participation.

Some of the recommendations, however, may add extra financial burdens. Many facilities have outsourced video chat services to private corporations, which charge fees of up to a dollar per minute (not including other expenses). After repeated communication with family in prison, such costs could prove taxing for users from low-income households.

Some critics note that even the best family engagement programs can’t erase the trauma experienced by children of the incarcerated. In an article in National Affairs, Naomi Schaefer Riley, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, described a scenario in which a mother raises a child in a prison nursery, receives a longer sentence for violating prison rules, and then–rather than getting out close to the baby’s departure—is forced to part ways with the infant for the remainder of her sentence.

“Keep in mind that while they are in the prison nursery, they have almost no contact with any other adult like a father or grandmother–the people who are most likely to take them if they are forced to leave,” Riley wrote.

Another focus of concern involves juvenile offenders who are parents.

“For incarcerated youth who are parents themselves, in-person visitation with their children in a space conducive to play is vital to supporting family engagement during incarceration,” the researchers wrote.

“Juvenile justice facilities often have policies and practices that can hinder quality visitation, including visits in large communal spaces or requiring the incarcerated parent to wear shackles during visitation.”

just beginnings

A prison family visitation area (L) transformed by the Just Beginnings program into a family-friendly environment. Photo courtesy Florida Law Review


The authors cited a program called Just Beginnings (JB), a structured visitation program aimed particularly at young fathers in juvenile and adult criminal justice facilities. The program began in three counties in California in 2008 and has since expanded to 16 sites across six states. it’s also available to young mothers.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the program has had a productive impact, the study said.

Researchers quoted one teen father who admitted he had refused to see his son because “I couldn’t let my guard down to be a dad in regular visitation [areas].”

But, he added, “in the JB room I feel relaxed to play with him and make funny faces with him.”

The authors of the study were: Shani M. King, professor of  law and director of the Center of Children and Families at the University of Florida Levin College of Law; Hannah Ayasse, Training and Development Coordinator at the Just Beginning Fatherhood Program at Georgetown University; Alyssa Mikytuck, MPP, researcher and PhD Candidate at Georgetown University; Rachel F. Barr, co-director of Graduate Studies at Georgetown University; Jennifer F. Woodlard, associate professor of Developmental Studies, Community & Law at Georgetown University; and Terry Harrak, consultant at the Youth Law Center.

Brian Demo is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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