“I was just crying, because I didn’t know what to do…As the time started going past, I cried for me being away from my mom [sic]. But when I visit her, it’s different.”
Seventeen-year-old Lashawna is one of the many young people who took part in Echoes of Incarceration, a series of documentaries produced by and about youth impacted directly or indirectly by mass incarceration. In a 2014 short film titled ‘Visitation- Through the Youth Lens” , Lashawna momentarily averts her gaze as she describes the terror and confusion of her mother’s arrest. But when she describes visiting her mother in prison, she looks directly into the camera, and her voice rings with conviction:
“I know she’s still here. I can still talk to her about my problems. She’s still my best friend. As long as I can visit her, and feel her touch, eat with her and just chill with her, that’s all that matters.”
Lashawna is one of over five million American children impacted by parental incarceration. Her story illustrates that in-person visitations can have enormous impacts on parent-child relationships, impacts ameliorated by child-friendly visitation environments and interventional care. However, many families face significant, often traumatizing hardships related to visitiations, especially in the absence of these support systems.
Researchers have found that visits in child-friendly environments with supportive mentorship (such as those promoted by the ‘Girl Scouts Beyond Bars’ program) led to positive outcomes in nearly every child participant, with their caregivers reporting improved behaviour. Additionally, children who had contact with their incarcerated parents reported fewer feelings of alienation towards parents compared to children with no contact. These findings only validate what humans have known for centuries: that a child’s wellbeing is deeply tied to their parent’s presence and love.
On the parent’s side, researchers report that “mothers reported improvement in empathy and parenting attitudes following mentoring and intervention, but only when they received frequent visits from children.” While incarcerated in Kentucky, Corey John Richardson wrote : “On visits to prison, incarcerated fathers devour the attention of their children, as if they could absorb the lost years of ball games, family outings and other shared moments in a one- or two- hour visit…Aggressive hardcore convicts morph into extremely paternal and loving men during phone calls home to their kids. One can hear in their voices a sincere desire to connect on some deeper level with their sons and daughters.” Additionally, many researchers have found that strong family connections can reduce rates of recidivism.
Despite significant academic and intuitive support for the idea that visitation can lead to positive outcomes and strengthened relationships, a 2015 study showed that less than 32% of incarcerated people received a visit from a loved one in a typical month. With in-person visitation drastically reduced during the pandemic, as well as the increased prevalence of online visits, it is possible that this number is even lower in the present. Richardson succinctly states his reasons for this disparity: “Far-flung and costly travel weigh on already constrained family budgets and limited transportation options; brief visits in tightly constrained conditions…and expensive collect calls all added together do little to keep the family together.” His observations are corroborated by the accounts of numerous currently and formerly imprisoned parents.
In 2011, Olivia Hamilton was temporarily incarcerated at a holding cell in Georgia. While recounting visits with her children, Hamilton said “My boys were five and three then. The first time they came was really hard. They were beating on the glass, trying to come through it.” Like 42% of America’s incarcerated population, Hamilton’s crime was non-violent – she was a low-income mother arrested for stealing diapers and money to pay utility bills. There was no reason that she should not have had physical contact with her children. As Tanya Krupat, director of the New York Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, observed: “A lot of the parent-child connection is not actually spoken. A child’s head is on your lap, you’re tickling each other…there’s a lot of physicality.” Despite this, plexiglass barricades, telephones and a complete lack of physical contact characterize vistation rooms in many states, with emotionally devastating consequences for young, often pre-verbal children, who do not understand why they cannot hug or hold hands with their parents.
Even when some children are allowed to have physical contact with their incarcerated parent, they are frightened by the oppressive environment of the visiting rooms themselves. Imprisoned people in New York are generally allowed to have visitations at least once a week, however the environment that these visits are conducted in may not be conducive to positive experiences. While incarcerated, Peter Mehmel writes, “When my family brought [my son] to our first visit a month later…he lunged to meet me, hugging tight…I searched for an answer to his unspoken plea for an explanation. The small, unadorned visiting room was crowded and seemed to close in upon us. I found no answer in the water-stained ceiling, the pale yellow cinder-block walls, the speckled concrete floor. I just held him, fighting back my own emotions.” In addition to the deppressing atmosphere of visitation rooms, young children must generally endure long wait times and invasive searches by intimidating guards, both of which can make visits highly stressful experiences.
One team correlated increased visitation with insecure attachment patterns in children. However, she acknowledged that all the visits in her study “occurred through a window in a large, noisy room, in which children and caregivers were sometimes frisked or patted down as part of the visitation screening process.”
As of 2014, seven of New York’s forty-four prisons had ‘family rooms.’ These are child-friendly visitation rooms, with brightly coloured murals on the walls, toys in boxes and picture books on shelves. When accompanied with interventions such as parenting programs and counseling, visitations in these rooms can mitigate some of the trauma of having a loved one in prison. While this is a start, prisons still have a long way to go in making visits both accessible and family-friendly. And, of course, the best solution to preventing the trauma of parental incarceration is simple: stop incarcerating so many people in the first place.