Opportunities and Challenges of Protecting and Reintegrating Families
Presentation to the Allegheny County Jail Collaborative Conference
October 21, 2003 at the Omni William Penn, Pittsburgh PA
by Claire A. Walker, Ph.D., Executive Director, Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation
In addition to promoting education, the most powerful thing prison administrators can do to assure that inmates do not come back is to encourage maintenance of close ties between prisoners and their families — especially through quality visiting.
Though involving families in the rehabilitation and reintegration of inmates sometimes is a struggle and always requires balancing acts, research seems to suggest that good family relationships with relatives, spouses, and children play a significant role in reducing recidivism.
Studies over the past 50 years — looking at records of recidivism from 1925 on — have consistently found positive correlations between “strength of family-social bonds and parole success… across very diverse offender populations and in different locales.” The author of a review of decades of research concludes: “It is doubtful if there is any other research finding in the field of corrections which can come close to this record.”
Recently the Florida legislature declared in the preamble to a new law governing prison visiting that “maintaining an inmate’s family and community relationships through enhancing visitor services and programs and increasing the frequency and quality of visits is an underutilized correctional resource that can improve an inmate’s behavior in the correctional facility, and, upon release… will help to reduce recidivism.” In the same year lawmakers in Oklahoma echoed the opinion and passed similar legislation.
In what ways do families make a difference? In April 2003 we asked 186 parents in the Allegheny County Jail to tell us who provided help to them and their children while they were in Jail. Almost 70% answered, “only family.” Family members cared for their children, put money in their accounts, accepted collect phone calls and paid for three-way calling so the inmates could talk to their children and other family members. Some family members visited and made it possible for children to visit.
Here’s more of what inmates told us:
- Overwhelmingly, parents reported that their children were currently living with family members. 77% of the children of incarcerated mothers and 87% of the children of incarcerated fathers were living with their other biological parent, grandparent, or other close relative.
- Many families had been providing help to inmates and their children before this incarceration. At the time of their mothers’ arrests, 40% of the children were already being cared for by someone else, mostly their other biological parents or close relatives; this was true to an even greater degree for children whose fathers were in Jail.
- The stability that family members provide may, in part, cushion some of the impact of parents’ incarceration. Fewer than 1/3 of the children in our study had to move when their parents were incarcerated.
In providing for the care of inmates and their children, families bear significant financial costs. So far we have estimated only the costs directly related to the incarcerated parent: Commissary, phone, letters, visits. We very conservatively estimate that involved family members spend almost $55 per month (likely closer to $70/month in the first couple of months) to maintain contact with and support inmates at the Allegheny County Jail. Most national estimates are much higher.
Because this conference is about rehabilitation and reintegration, I began by talking about reducing recidivism and the family’s role in that. But Emptying the Jail will require also a focus on diminishing the numbers of new recruits. While this is clearly an enormous topic, larger than this or any conference, I would like to focus on one area of concern that directly relates to what occurs when adults are arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and released: What happens to their children.
Children whose parents have been incarcerated are 5-7 times more likely to be incarcerated themselves when they grow up. We do not really know if the causes are related to their parents’ incarceration, because children of incarcerated parents are an invisible population about which very little is known.
The numbers of children whose parents are behind bars have been rising steeply over the past 25 years along with a greater than 4-fold increase in the number of people incarcerated. Nationally more than 2 million children under 18 have a parent in jail or prison. An estimated 10 million additional children have parents who were imprisoned at some point in their children’s lives. Together they are almost 17% of the nation’s children.
We estimate that on any day, the parents of at least 7000 children in Allegheny County are in jail or prison.
Here are some facts about the children drawn from our interviews with parents at the Jail and from the national literature
- The average child whose parent is incarcerated is 8 years old. Some of the youngest among them, those 3-6, are most likely to have been present when their mothers were arrested. Most live in poor families and neighborhoods. In our study, children were equally likely to be white or African American.
- Many children whose parents are in jail have experienced or witnessed violence. 39% of the women we interviewed and 23% of the men reported that their children had experienced or witnessed violence while living with them.
- Most have experienced repeated incarcerations of their parents. More than half of the parents we interviewed had been incarcerated three or more times. Almost a quarter of the children in our study had lived through the imprisonment of both of their biological parents.
- While most children of incarcerated parents may experience loss, the children of single parents who are incarcerated may face unique difficulties and greater dislocation. 1 in 4 of the children of the women we interviewed were living with this single mother when she was incarcerated. A surprising 13% of the men’s children lost their single parent — their dad — when he was jailed.
Dr. Denise Johnston, Director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, and one of the nation’s few experts whose research and practice are devoted entirely to understanding and helping children of prisoners, has characterized the lives of most children of prisoners she has known as lives of enduring trauma.
A child experiences a new harrowing event before the wounds of the first have healed, and the child cannot cope. Very young children, especially those without a consistent primary caregiver, do not have the resources to cope. At each developmental stage, she believes, parent-child separation impairs the child’s ability to complete age-appropriate developmental tasks. Multiple arrests and repeated child-parent separations compound the damage to children.
How severe are the separations between children and parents in the County Jail?
On average, the parents we interviewed had been in Jail for 3 months at the time of the interviews, and those who had an idea of how long they would be incarcerated, expected it would be about 6 months.
It is difficult for many parents to maintain communication with their children while they are incarcerated. 1 in 3 of the parents we interviewed had no contact with their children while in Jail. Some had no contact with any family members. (phone, letter, visit.)
For the majority of children, those who remained in touch with their parents in Jail, here are some of our Survey findings that stand out:
- Most communication is by phone. 60% of inmates’ children communicate with their incarcerated parents by phone, and 1/3 of those children talk with their parents at least daily. These phone calls often include other members of the family.
- Parents of half of the children wrote letters or cards to their children, most of them at least once a week.
- Few children visit their parents in Jail. (29%). Almost half of those who visit, however, do so at least once a week.
- Younger children are more likely to remain in contact than older children.
- While most children who lived with their now-incarcerated parents remain in communication, we were somewhat surprised to discover that almost half of the children who DID NOT live with their parents before the incarceration remained in communication while their parents were in Jail.
Here are a few specific actions parents at the Jail and children who participated in the National
Institute of Corrections videoconference “Children of Prisoners: Children of Promise” suggested could reduce barriers to maintaining family ties:
- Reducing the high cost and difficulty of phone calls. Phones are the key means of communicating and the only way most parents in Jail stay in touch with their families.
- Improving the conditions under which visits occur. A woman at the Jail described her young child’s terror when she saw her mother through glass and wire and thought she was in a cage. A young man in the videoconference spoke movingly of how devastated he was when he saw a reflection of himself as he looked through the glass at his imprisoned mother. We were told of many other factors during our interviews: the constraints of space and rules about visitors at the Jail that make it impossible for all of a parents’ children, or children and several family members, to come at the same time… and much more.
- Increasing the currently very small number of contact visits at the Jail. Many parents we interviewed wished for contact visits, especially with their young children. Children on the videoconference spoke of the need for physical touching and comforting.
And here are thoughts about a couple of system-wide barriers:
- The lack of focus on families as key partners in restoring the lives of offenders. Families are bearing the burdens, paying the costs, struggling to provide stability. “Family-friendly” is hard and impossible at times, but when possible it is perhaps essential to success.
- The absence of adequate information and understanding about children of prisoners and their families that comes with their “invisibility.”
- Nationally few law enforcement agencies have official policies about how to respond when someone being arrested has children and fewer record anything about the children.
- Seldom are judges able to consider family circumstances in sentencing — (though in some jurisdictions they can consider the needs of an employer.)
- Correctional agencies may ask inmates at admission if they have children but rarely use the information, publish it, or make it a part of their policies and practice.
- Most child welfare agencies and their subcontractors do not try to count the number of children of prisoners they serve.
Whether you are principally concerned about maintaining discipline within correctional facilities or assuring the safety of the community by reducing recidivism — OR reducing the inflows of new inmates into the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems, the key to achieving your goal may be successfully meeting the many challenges of building and strengthening the ties among family members, and especially between incarcerated parents and their children.
Thank you for your time and this opportunity to share a part of what the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation has learned so far about the families and children of prisoners.
1.^ Kupers, Terry A., M.D., “Brief Literature Review re Prison Visiting,” Oct. 9, 2000, p.1. From Arlene Lee, National Resources Center for Children of Prisoners, personal correspondence.
2.^ Homer, Eva Lee, “Inmate-family ties: Desirable but Difficult” in Federal Probation, 1979, p.49, Quoted in Kupers, op cit.
3.^ Homer, op cit.
4.^ Florida Statute 944.8031, 1999
5.^ Oklahoma Statue OP-030118, 1999
6.^ Interviews conducted by the Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation at the Allegheny County Jail from April 7 to April 11, 2003. A random sample of men and women in the Jail 2 weeks or longer was drawn with the assistance of Joan MacLennan, Director of Planning at the Jail, and Hide Yamatani, Ph.D., Vice President for Research at the Center on Race and Social Problems of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. Assistance in the construction of the survey questionnaire and subsequent data processing came from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. We interviewed 120 mothers and 66 fathers. They gave us information about 414 children under the age of 18.
7.^ From a variety of sources using a variety of computational methods. There do not seem to be any large-scale studies that identify the impact of parental incarceration on subsequent criminal behavior/incarceration of children. Senate Report 106-404 from the FY2001 Department of Justice appropriations bill indicates that “children of prisoners are six times more likely than other children to be incarcerated at some point in their lives.” Quoted in “Services for Families of Prison Inmates,” Special Issues in Corrections, U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections, February 2002.
8.^ For a succinct discussion of the absence of information about children of prisoners see Simmons, Charlene Wear, Ph.D., “Children of Incarcerated Parents,” California State Library Research Bureau, March 2000.
9.^ Computation based on Mumola, Christopher J., “Incarcerated Parents and Their Children,” U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, August 2000, p.1; Harrison, Paige M. and Jennifer C. Karberg, “Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2002,” U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics, April 2003, p.2; and U.S. Census 2000 count of 72,293,812 children under 18. The estimate of the number of children of incarcerated parents at the end of 1999 is 2,205,100.
10.^ The Women’s Prison Association & Home, Inc., Family to Family; Partnerships between Corrections and Child Welfare, Part Two, p.8. Quoted in Simmons, op cit. p.2.
11.^ Based on U.S. Census 2000 count of 72,293,812 children under 18.
12.^ Estimate by Kim Trohaugh of the Pittsburgh Leadership Foundation based on PA Department of Corrections and Allegheny Bureau of Corrections one-day censuses, applying the formula in Gabel, Katherine and Denise Johnston, M.D., Children of Incarcerated Parents, 1995, p.62.
13.^ Johnston, Denise, M.S., Jailed Mothers, 1991. Quoted in Gabel & Johnston, op cit., p.72.
14.^ See Gabel & Johnston, op cit., Chapter 5.
15.^ Videoconference aired June 18, 2003 included a panel of children moderated by Emani Davis.
16.^ [Cite to be added.]
© 2003 Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation. All rights reserved.
Permission to use is granted with credit to Pittsburgh Child Guidance Foundation.