With over six million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons it is easy to believe that many of those inmates are also parents. Many incarcerated women, sentenced during pregnancy, barely have a chance to see and hold their baby before he is whisked away to be taken care of by other family members or immediately put into the foster care system. Sometimes women are allowed to keep their babies with them and care for them while they serve their time. (Glaze & Maruschak).
It is well documented in research and psychological investigation that it is often detrimental for a child’s development to be taken from their mothers at an early age. A surrogate caregiver can sometimes partially replace the need an infant has for a mother. As children reach school age there are other issues that children with incarcerated parents must face. Children may fear ostracism or ridicule if people know that their parents are in prison, and so they may withdraw. Or children may become angry and act out; and become troublesome to school officials and caregivers alike. (Moore)
In some correctional facilities mothers are allows to keep their children with them while in prison. These programs are only available on a very limited basis, and usually only exist for a few women at any facility that allows it. The children must be under school age, and the mother is responsible for their full time care. While some people criticize this practice of putting children behind bars along with their mothers, asserting that being incarcerated must be damaging to the child’s view of the world. Others support the practice as a humanitarian way to provide the means for a mother child bond to develop. (Inslap)
Besides allowing children to live with their mothers in prison there are other ways to foster family communication. Children visiting their parents in prison is one way. It may be initially difficult for a child to see a parent in prison garb, but it also may be that this is better for the child than not seeing parents at all. Some facilities allow family visitation in an outdoor setting where the children and the parents are allowed to play outdoor games together. Other facilities only allow indoor visits but they may have a visitation room equipped with decks of cards, board games, and drawing paper. To us these activities may well seem trivial, but they become of paramount importance to parents and children yearning to spend time together.
Incarcerated parents can maintain open lines of communication with their children by regularly writing letters. Even if a child is too young to write a letter back, many times he can send back drawings as his response. Parents sending letters to children in primary school should remember to write in block letters so that the child might be able to read it on his own. It could even happen that a pre-school child would strive to learn to read just so he could read the regular letters his mom or dad sent him from prison. Parents can keep up with their children’s school activities through letters and photographs sent to them by their children or their children’s caregivers. An incarcerated parent would probably not be allowed to have the clay pot or the key chain that a child made in school, but would certainly be allowed a photo of the child’s creation.
Sometimes a parent sends letters and they are returned to sender. Sometimes a parent does not know where or how to send a letter to their child. It is important for parents to continue to write anyway. Maybe, at some later date, the parent will have the opportunity to give all of the letters written and not sent, or sent and returned directly to the child. Especially if parents are corresponding with a younger child, parents should remember to write regularly and often. Just as most young children prefer to be given five pennies over a nickel; young children often prefer five short notes over one long letter.
Parents can make telephone calls to their children as another way to continue communication. Collect calls from prison are very expensive, however in many areas there is a service where family members can purchase pre-paid phone cards at less expense. These pre-paid phone cards were created specifically for inmates to help them stay in touch with their loved ones. (Adalist-Estrin).
Some correctional facilities allow inmates to have internet pen pals. In the facilities that do allow such access, incarcerated parents have a prime opportunity to maintain contact with their children. Nowadays even very young children are computer literate. Most children have internet access in their caregiver’s home; or through school programs; after school programs; the library; or through social service outreach programs. Older children since they may well use computers and e-mail on a daily basis are likely to be more comfortable maintaining contact with their parents this way. Also the ease and immediacy of e-mail correspondence fits well with teenagers and pre-teens need for attention. Pictures can also be easily sent via e-mail, although it is unlikely that a parent would be allowed to print them. (Moore).
There are many prison outreach organizations that help incarcerated parents maintain communication and contact with their children. Some of these are faith based or volunteer organizations that bring children to the prison facility to visit parents. One such organization is called, Aid to Inmate Mothers (AIM). AIM is located in Georgia, and provides free monthly transportation to children to various prison facilities. It may be difficult or impossible for a child’s to visit without help. There are fewer women’s prisons than men’s prisons so women may be incarcerated far away from their homes. A child’s caregivers may not be willing or able to drive a child several hours to a far flung prison to visit a parent. (AIM).
It is beneficial to all involved for incarcerated parents to maintain communication and contact with their children. It is particularly important for female inmates to be encouraged and assisted with keeping in touch with their children. A large percentage of female inmates were the full time caregiver of their children prior to their arrest and conviction. (BJS).
Communication benefits children by making them know that they have not been abandoned. Even if the parent’s sentence is lengthy a child can still experience the love and attention of his incarcerated parent through communication. Although, it is not ideal for a child to grow up knowing that his parent is in prison at all; it is far better to know that his parent is in prison and also loves him. Daily interactions may well be impossible and impractical. The child is deprived of the opportunity of talking with his parent at the end of each day, telling his mom or dad how his day went, and sharing all of the little things that grow the bonds between parents and children. But, with assistance and continued persistent effort at positive communication, parents and children can continue their relationship.
Communication between incarcerated parents and their children also greatly benefits the parents, providing there was a relationship between them prior to the parent’s incarceration. If there was little or no parent/child relationship prior to arrest and conviction, then it is much more difficult for the parent to benefit from communication with the child. If a parent only feels guilt and remorse when communicating with the child; and the child is nearly a stranger; then it becomes more difficult for the parent to benefit from communication. Some inmates can overcome this, and create and foster a new relationship with their child with whom they have long since lost communication. But, for other inmates who have lost contact with their children prior to their sentencing, the attempts at communication and contact may be obstacles that they cannot overcome.
If, in fact, the parent had a positive relationship with their child prior to arrest and conviction then communication with that child is of great benefit to the parent. Contact and communication with the child may provide hope for the incarcerated parent, and even provide a reason to live. An incarcerated parent may more closely monitor their own behavior while in prison, so that they do not lose the precious privileges of communication with their children.
Society as a whole benefits when incarcerated parents have positive relationships with their children. A child who knows that his parents love him and have not abandoned him is far less likely to display behavioral problems. This not only, benefits the child, but it also benefit’s the school where the child is enrolled. A child with an incarcerated parent becomes immediately “at-risk” for becoming a behavior problem; and later becoming incarcerated himself. With help and support in fostering a positive relationship between the child and parent, these risks can be minimized.
Society benefits when an inmate successfully reintegrates into his own family. If a parent’s release is met with welcome and love by his children other obstacles to societal reintegration become more surmountable. If an offender successfully reintegrates then, that inmate is far less likely to re-offend. On the other hand if an offender is released to a family of strangers, and feels only remorse and guilt, other obstacles to reintegration loom large. (Gonzalez, Romero & Cerbana).
Adalist-Estrin, Ann. “Communication Tips, For Prisoners and Their Families” Children of Prisoners Library, Facts and Issues: CPL 107. Retrieved 22 November 2008 http://www.fcnetwork.org/cpl/
AIM, Inc. 2008. “Aid to Inmate Mothers, Visitation”. Retrieved November 23 2008 www.inmates.org/Visitation.htm
Amnesty International USA. 2008. “Women in Prison: The Issue – Sentencing and the War on Drugs. Retrieved November 24 2008 www.amnestyusa.org/women-in- prison/
Clopton, Kerri L; East Katheryn K. 2008. “Are There Other Kids Like Me?, Children with a Parent in Prison” Early Childhood Education Journal. V36 n2 p195-198 October 2008.
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Glaze, Lauren E; Maruschak, Laura M. August 2008. “Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report: Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children” Retrieved November 25 2008 www.ojp.usdoj/bjs/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf
Gonzalez, Patricia; Romero, Tony; Cerbana, Christine, B. December 2007. “Parent Education Program for Incarcerated Mothers in Colorado” Journal of Correctional Education v58 n4 p357-373
Inslap, Steve. 5 September 2008. “In Ohio Inmate Mothers Care for Babies in Prison” Politics and Society. National Public Radio. Retrieved November 24 2008 www.npr.org
Miller, Keva. 2008. “The Impact of Parental Incarceration on Children: An Emerging Need for Effective Intervention”,
Miller, Keva. 2003. “Risk and Resilience Among African American Children of Incarcerated Parents” DOI: 10.1300/137v 15 02-03
Moore, DeWayne. March 1987. “Parent – Adolescent Separation: The Construction of Adulthood by Late Adolescents”. Developmental Psychology. V23 n2 p298-307