Let’s Make It Easier for Kids to Visit Incarcerated Parents

By Jaime Joyce , The Marshall Project

When I taught elementary school in New York City’s East Village, a student’s grandmother pulled me aside to tell me that the boy’s mom was in prison. She wanted me to know so that if he misbehaved, or seemed upset, I would understand what might be troubling him, she said.

In the United States, 2.7 million children have a parent in jail or in prison, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. That’s 1 in 28 kids. Over the years, had there been other children in my care like the boy in my third-grade class? I may never know. The stigma of incarceration leads many families to stay silent.

We can speak up for children separated from their parents by incarceration—advocating for programs and policies that make it easier for kids to visit their parents in prison. Inmates, institutions and children benefit. Research shows visits help reduce prison misconduct and recidivism. Evidence also suggests that visits can positively affect a child’s well-being and improve the chances that families will remain intact when a former inmate reenters the community.

Yet the time and money needed for travel to prisons can make visits difficult, if not impossible, for families already struggling economically.

Last June, I went to California to learn about Get on the Bus, a program of the Los Angeles-area nonprofit Center for Restorative Justice Works that for nearly 20 years has been bringing kids free of charge to visit parents in California state prisons. There are many ways families stay connected when a person is in prison—video chats, email, letters and brief phone calls—but there is no substitute for one-on-one time together.

Donisha, left, with her daughter, Mayal, at Folsom Women's Facility. COURTESY OF JAIME JOYCE

Donisha, left, with her daughter, Mayal, at Folsom Women's Facility. COURTESY OF JAIME JOYCE

A 2015 report by Prison Policy Initiative, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, notes that 63 percent of people in state prisons serve their sentences in facilities more than 100 miles from home. The distance is even greater—500 miles or more—for those in federal prisons; it is not uncommon for prisoners to be sent out of state. Since prisons are often located in remote areas inaccessible by public transportation, private transportation services have sprung up to bridge the gap. But they can be expensive.

In 2015, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights released a report on the cost of incarceration on families. It found that 65 percent of families struggled to meet basic needs as a result of a loved one’s incarceration. The cost of phone calls and visits alone caused one in three families to go into debt.

The bus I was on set out from Oakland at 2:45 a.m. on a Saturday. We were headed a little over 100 miles northeast, to Folsom State Prison. (Three more buses were en route from points south; one had already been on the road for five hours). I sat beside Mayal, 8, and Mi’Angel, 6, who were going with their great-grandmother, Ruby, to visit their mom, Donisha, in Folsom’s women’s prison. The girls had seen her just once in four years.

Read full article