Article in Frontiers of Justice Vol II:
Coddling or Common Sense?

Our Children Do Time with Us

E-Mail  by Denise Quarles   Bio/Address

    Eight year old Trevor's behavior has changed considerably for the better during the past year. Prior to that time he had been a problem for both his grandmother and for school teachers. Out of shame, his grandmother had told him two years ago that his mother Susan was in a hospital. In fact, she began serving a lengthy sentence for Second Degree Murder for killing her physically abusive boyfriend. Trevor could not understand why he was the only child in his neighborhood whose mother was not living with her children. He worried about he - the extent of her illness, whether she was going to die and if he would ever see her again.
    About one year ago Susan told her mother, Trevor's guardian, that it was time to tell Trevor the truth that she was in prison. She also told her she had informed Scott Correctional Facility prison officials of her interest in participating along with her son in the Children's Visitation Program. Susan missed her son a great deal and could not imagine not continuing to see Trevor and hold him. Like her son, she too had displayed behavior problems after the abrupt separation from him when she was sentenced to prison. She was angry at the predicament she was in and often wondered why she had not terminated her relationship with her abusive boyfriend many years ago. It seemed that she was angry with almost everyone she came into contact with in prison, as well as being angry at herself. Susan had received misconduct citations form prison staff for Insolence, for cursing at them, and for Disobeying A Direct Order. She also did not want to attend school classes which would assist her in preparing to pass the GED exam. Her counselor told her that if her behavior and attitude did not improve, she was jeopardizing any opportunity she had to have the warden award he, credits which would reduce the amount of time she would have to stay in prison before she could be considered for parole.
    Susan finally began to realize that she was not making the best of the predicament in which she found herself. She summoned up the courage to be truthful with her son by telling him that she had committed a very serious crime for which she was being punished by serving a prison sentence. To the extent she could, she wanted to parent her child, even if from a distance. Although Susan's mother could not financially afford to transport Trevor to the Scott Correctional Facility on regular visiting days, Susan and her son were able to participate in the Children's Visitation Program which provided the opportunity for a monthly visit between them, along with other prison mothers and their children.
    Children's Visitation Program day is a big day for mother and son, one which the two of them look forward to each month. It is the day they are able to spend some quality time together talking, playing games and just holding each other. A volunteer with whom Trevor has established a trusting relationship over time drives him to the prison where he is searched after entering a security gate, just as are all visitors to any Michigan prison. He had previously been informed that the search is a requirement to ensure visitors are not bringing in inappropriate items. Despite this explanation, his young mind does not fully comprehend the purpose of the search, but he accepts it as part of the requirements necessary when he visits his mother. Each time Trevor visits, he is escorted into the visiting room by prison staff. His face lights up with happiness when he sees her there waiting for him. In between the special monthly 3-hour visits, he desperately misses his mother; although he knows she is being punished for having done something "real bad," he still finds it difficult to understand why he cannot see her every day. Susan continues to try and explain to her son that she will one day come home after her term of punishment ends. She realizes that it may be impossible to get her son to accept her daily absence from his life, but at least she can try to influence him positively through the frequent letters they write to each other and through the visitation program which is helping her to improve her parenting skills. She is also pleased that Trevor's behavior has greatly improved in the last several months. He knows now that she is not ill, that she loves him and that she will return home one day.
    The Michigan Department of Corrections began the Children's Visitation Program in 1986 at the Huron Valley Women's Facility (later closed and replaced by the Scott Facility). Initially the program was proposed to then Warden Tekla Miller by an advisory board which was established as a result of a consent decree following the filing of a federal class action lawsuit. Female prisoners had alleged a lack of parity in programming for female versus male prisoners. Three of the board members (two social work professors from the University of Michigan and one representative of the Women Lawyer's Association) presented information from a study of children of incarcerated single mothers which indicated that the children were at the highest risk to suffer from depression, to get involved in crime and to display violent behavior.
    A technical assistance grant was received from the National Institute of Corrections so that input from a prison parenting consultant could be obtained. Warden Miller received approval from administrators of the Department for implementation of the program, and volunteers and the advisory board obtained grant funds through the Skillman Foundation, a philanthropic organization headquartered in Detroit. The funding was administered by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency, an agency devoted to development of effective solutions to crime and victimization. Board members and prisoners had input into the development of the program which initially began with 10 children of prisoners who participated in a three hour structured visiting session with their incarcerated mothers. During the visiting period, prison staff who had volunteered to assist with the program, as well as a Children's Visitation Program employee, would observe the interactions between the prisoners and their children and organize some group play activities.
    Unlike during regular visiting periods, a uniformed corrections officer was not present to monitor the visitation. It was determined that a better degree of normalcy for the children could be achieved by not having a uniformed corrections officer present. After each visit there were two debriefing sessions held, one for the prisoners and one for the children, to discuss issues relating to the visit and interactions between mothers and children. Program staff assisted the participants to work through difficulties with having to say good-bye to each other at the end of the visit.
    Tekla Miller states that the program was successful in helping to improve the behavior of both prisoners and their children. Through debriefing sessions, the participants were able to resolve some of the emotional difficulties resulting from the separation of parent and child due to incarceration. Also, the parenting class required of the prisoner participants, as well as the constructive visiting activities, helped them learn how to interact effectively with their children. Ms Miller stated that when the other prisoners began to see the benefits of the program, they became enthusiastic about it and participation substantially increased. She indicated that one of the most telling comments made by a prisoner program participant was that for the first time the prisoner had sat down and actually spent time talking to her teenage son.
    Due to prisoner acceptance, the program continued and increased to 60 mothers and 120 children at the Scott Correctional Facility. A coordinator of the program was hired by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency and volunteers/drivers were trained by the Council staff. These volunteers were matched with the children in an effort to build trust and to establish a relationship between them. Typically the volunteer transported up to 30 children per week. Enrollment in the program war, considered a privilege and a prisoner's acceptance into it was at the discretion f the Council staff. The number of participants was limited only by the availability and capacity of the prison visiting room. Additionally, the prisoner participants had to comply with the mandatory requirement to attend parenting classes and support group sessions as well as to refrain from any physical discipline of their children and to comply with prison visiting rules. The visiting periods continued to consist of story telling, mothers helping children read and draw, program staff organizing meaningful group play activities, and debriefing sessions at the conclusion of the period. Whenever clinical interventions were deemed necessary by the program coordinator, the interventions were carried out in consultation with the prison psychologist.
    Unfortunately, the Children's Visitation Program ended as of November, 1997 due to the lack of funding. The warden of the Scott Facility and the Council Executive Director are now looking for other funding sources for what has proven to be a successful and meaningful program which provided positive mother/child interactions, and one which hopefully over time will prove to reduce recidivism for the prisoners and to prevent criminal behavior in their children. Warden Joan Yukins stated, "The Children's Visitation Program provided an opportunity for meaningful interaction between prisoners and their children and sometimes provided the forum for reconciliation between estranged parents and children." She also indicates that she has witnessed program participation having a positive effect on the behavior of prisoners during their incarceration.
    Programs such as the Children's Visitation Program help reduce anxiety in the children of prisoners, in part because they are comforted by the knowledge that their mothers still love them and care about their well being. Sometimes they are able to bond with their mothers in a more meaningful way than they had prior to their mother's incarceration. For the prisoners the program is a positive influence because they come to realize the degree to which their children need and love them. This can be a catalyst to help them improve their behavior in prison and to take advantage of the various rehabilitation programs offered in preparation for the, eventual release and reunification ,with their children. Female prisoners who are mothers oftentimes say that the most difficult aspect of incarceration is the separation from their children. As one program participant stated, "Our children do time with us."

 

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