Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2007

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All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated

Book Excerpt

By Nell Bernstein

On a sweltering summer morning in Washington, DC, 9-year-old Diamond sat in the silence of the basement of the Shiloh Baptist Church, squirming in his seat. As an image formed on the computer monitor before him, his eyes widened, and the fidgeting ceased.

"Hi, Dad!" Diamond shouted, as if into a tin can--as if it were up to him to span the 360 miles that separated him from his incarcerated father, DeWayne Mixon. "Can you see me?"

Thanks to the magic of computer teleconferencing, Mixon--who was in the sixth year of a three-to-nine-year sentence for assault at the Corrections Corporation of America Northeast Ohio Correctional Center in Youngstown, Ohio--could, in fact, both see and hear his son. He was not, however, able to touch him, and it would likely be months before he could. With the exception of an extended visit earlier that summer, Mixon had not seen his son in person in more than five years.

In 2001, the federal government closed Washington, DC's decrepit Lorton Correctional Complex and began exporting its inhabitants. Today, nearly 6,000 DC residents are in federal and private prisons across the country--some as far away as California. Children who were once able to visit their parents several times a month now see them only rarely--or not at all. A 15-minute phone call to the DC area used to cost $1 from Lorton; now it can cost as much as $30.

Carol Fennelly spent the 1980s and most of the 1990s advocating for the homeless in Washington, DC, living in and running that city's 14,000-bed Federal City Shelter. When DC started moving its prisoners out of state, Fennelly went with them. Starting out in Youngstown--a depressed former mill town that had come to depend on a constellation of private prisons for jobs and tax revenue--Fennelly began looking for ways to keep DC's prisoners connected with home and family.

"Once a dad gets in prison, he's generally no longer considered a part of his family," Fennelly observes. "Nothing in our society encourages this man to stay involved with his children."

At the same time, she says, prison can offer a "redemptive moment in someone's life, when they have been taken out of the context where they were doing the things that got them there in the first place. A lot of times, because prisons are no longer focused on rehabilitation, that moment is lost. But if you can reach people when they want to do something in their lives--they want to be part of their families; they don't want to come back to this place--then that moment can become valuable, and it can lead to the redeeming of a life that might be lost."

Fennelly does not see teleconferencing as a substitute for hands-on contact--she also facilitates offline visits and summer camps where DC children spend several days with their incarcerated parents. But for many exiled parents, virtual contact with their kids may be the only contact they get.

In a 40-minute teleconferencing session with Diamond, Mixon made it clear he worried about his fatherless son.

"Be careful out there," he lectured Diamond, who lived with his grandmother and three siblings in a DC housing project. "Now, you know right from wrong, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Don't be out there doing nonsense and acting crazy, you hear me?"

"Yes."

"'Cause you better than that, you hear me?"

"OK...Daddy? Daddy?"

The connection had dropped, and not for the first time. Because the low-income neighborhood in which the church was located had neither cable-modem nor DSL access, Fennelly was using a standard telephone line. She did not have the bandwidth to run both sound and streaming video at once, so she alternated between the two, freezing the images in order for father and child to converse. Even so, the line got overloaded and the computer crashed regularly, requiring a several-minute pause as it restarted.

The disappointment on Diamond's face each time his father evaporated bespoke a problem that goes beyond bandwidth. The bits and pieces of their fathers that Fennelly is able to offer the children of DC prisoners only highlight the magnitude of what they have lost, as prisoners have come to be seen as commodities that can be shipped from one place to another to meet market imperatives.

As the teleconference stuttered along, Diamond began to lose his focus. He scrunched up his nose, chewed on his shirt, peered into the microphone. Periodically, he looked to Fennelly, who was present, for guidance in talking to his distant dad.

"Diamond, what grade you going to be next year?" Mixon asked his son.

"Fifth." The image evaporated again. Diamond groaned in frustration and leaned in to restart the computer.

"You be good out there," Mixon told his son as the session drew to a close. "I love you, OK? Give Daddy a kiss on the cheek."

"How'm I supposed to do that?" Diamond asked.

In a telephone interview from the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, Mixon, 32, says teleconferencing offers him a chance to be a father, but also provides a painful reminder of the limitations of his role as a long-distance dad, and the risks Diamond faces as a result.

"It's killing me now," Mixon says. "I know he definitely needs me out there. I just want to be careful what I say to him. Talk to him about doing good in school. Tell him to watch who he hangs around with, 'cause a lotta them young boys out there can be bad little role models. And I don't want him to follow in my footsteps. He listens to me, but being as I'm not out there, my hand is in the air. It's in the air."

With budgets tightening and prison populations ballooning, family connections increasingly fall victim to fiscal concerns. Hawai'i, for example, sends nearly half of its approximately 3,500 prisoners to private prisons on the mainland, where they are housed at roughly half what it would cost to keep them at home--and where visits are prohibitively expensive for family members. Arizona sends prisoners to Texas; Indiana, to Kentucky; Wisconsin, to Oklahoma. Once they are in the private prison system, inmates may be moved again and again if cheaper beds turn up in another state.

Hawai'i transferred some of its mainland prisoners from Arizona to Mississippi--more than four thousand miles from home--in order to save $9 per inmate per day. After my visit to DC, the Youngstown prison was closed, and Fennelly moved her teleconferencing program to a private prison in North Carolina, which holds about 1,400 men from DC.

The cost to families of outsourcing prisoners is not factored into budget deliberations, but the bill comes due all the same. Hawai'i is finding the recidivism rate is higher for prisoners who have been held thousands of miles from home than for those kept on the islands. Given the evidence that consistent visits prevent recidivism, it's likely the same holds true for other prisoners shipped out of state in the name of short-term savings.

As the distances between prisoners and their children increase, creative solutions such as Fennelly's abound. Several prisons operate family literacy programs, in which inmates tape-record stories to send to their distant children. Prisoners in Washington State learn how to send their children "paper bag hugs"--they draw and cut out brown-paper figures, which children are encouraged to wrap around themselves should they feel the need for a parent's embrace.

Each such program offers the children of incarcerated parents something that can best be described as better than nothing. Each also brings into painful focus the magnitude of the problem it is intended to address.

Bringing Children and Their Incarcerated Parents Together

In 1986, the Osborne Association launched the Family Works program, which operates children's centers at two New York men's prisons and offers parenting classes at three. It was the first such effort to address incarcerated fathers. Today, the children's centers host some 6,000 visits a year, and about 150 fathers go through the parenting classes.

On the outside, Family Works runs a Family Resource Center in Brooklyn, where people with relatives in prison can come for support and referrals, and a hotline--staffed by ex-prisoners and relatives of prisoners--that family members can call for advice and assistance in navigating any of the state's 70 scattered prisons. Osborne also offers released prisoners services such as drug treatment and job placement, and offers visitation support and other services at the Albion Correctional Facility for women.

Family Works operates on a few basic premises: Children love their parents, and parents love their children. People can be bad citizens but good parents. Incarcerated fathers can provide much of what children need from them. Relationships between fathers and the mothers of their children have a profound effect on kids. Contact between incarcerated fathers and their children can have a positive impact on both.

Weaving these premises into prison life is a complicated endeavor. By the time a child reaches the Children's Center at Sing Sing, she has passed through a lobby where a sign has warned her caretaker not to place her on the counter. She has taken off her shoes and passed through a metal detector. She has been assigned a row number and been admitted to a vast and bare visiting room, where a wall of windows offers a close-up view of coiled razor wire.

Along one side of the visiting room are rows of plastic chairs, in which couples are assigned to sit side-by-side. On the other side are tables, reserved for larger family groups. At the back are vending machines, beneath a sign that reads, "INMATE RESTRICTED AREA." For visitors who have yet to learn to read, the figure of a prisoner with a circle and a slash conveys the message: If Dad wants a Snickers bar, you'll have to get it for him. Prisoners at Sing Sing, as elsewhere, are not allowed to use or handle money.

Within the Children's Center--a small, Plexiglas-enclosed enclave off to the side of the larger visiting room--all this evaporates. Inside the center, fathers can hug and hold their children, read books to them, play computer games with them, or help them weave key chains out of colored string. Security dictates the transparent walls--correctional officers must be able to see in--but their effect is the opposite of the Plexiglas that separates parent and child in a traditional window visit: They foster intimacy rather than enforce distance. From inside the center--especially if one sits at child-level, where shelves of books and toys obscure the view--the expanse of the visiting room disappears, creating a sense of shelter and privacy, a glass-enclosed island in an ocean in a bottle.

The toys that fill the Children's Center are not there simply to divert or entertain the children; they are there because Osborne Association Executive Director Elizabeth Gaynes learned early on that small children do not connect with their parents via protracted conversation. Her own strongest childhood memories, she realized, consisted less of conversation--the only form of interaction permitted in many visiting rooms--than of shared activity: a trip to the fair, being pushed on a swing. A child who draws a picture with his father, or joins him in a computer game, gains access to the building blocks of a family history. A child who makes her dad a sandwich from plastic bread and cheese at a toy kitchen has constructed for herself the memory of a picnic.

The Children's Center gives men who have taken the Osborne parenting class a chance to practice what they have learned, and it also works as a low-key recruiting office: When visitors sign in, they are asked whether they have taken the class and offered the opportunity to join.

Inside the Children's Center, program staff--including several inmates--continue, in subtle ways, to educate the men about their children's needs and development. Often, staffers find themselves helping a father choose a toy or understand a game--many had little chance to play with toys when they were children themselves.

When researchers evaluated Family Works, prisoners reported they and their children talked more and were more affectionate with each other, and their children's grades and behavior improved, once they began using the Children's Center. This last finding, the researchers noted, offers hope the center may help prevent children from "engaging in behaviors that, as they age, could escalate into more delinquent forms. As such, the Children's Center may be an important tool in reducing the intergenerational cycle of incarceration."

On a small table inside the Children's Center sits a stack of copies of the Rainbow Gazette, a thick quarterly magazine edited by inmate staff and written by prisoners and their visitors. Children who come to the Children's Center are invited to write for the Rainbow Gazette. In their submissions, visiting children offer their own assessments of the Center:

"I looked around and I got scared for a moment," one girl wrote of her first visit to Sing Sing, "but I was told that I was here for a good reason. I sat in the playroom, and two gentlemen help me feel comfortable and help me with the computers and games. It made me feel good about being here."

"Today was fun and interesting," a 13-year-old girl wrote, "because I got to make a butterfly and flower. I also had a great time by meeting new people and talking to them. The colors were kind of pretty. They were so beautiful. I felt good to come and see my daddy. I want to come every two weeks to children center (sic)."

"I love my father, and I wish that he could come home," wrote a 6-year-old (with caregiver assistance). "On Father's Day, I am going to get a nice card for him. He is nice to me and he tickles me a lot when I come to visit him."

The hope that drives the Children's Center is that butterflies and tickles--not just bars and razor wire--will lodge in the children's memories of time spent with their fathers. On the day I visited, Mariano, who had been at Sing Sing three years, was familiarizing himself with a Barbie computer game his daughter Marie Isabel favored. A wiggly 6-year-old with a wide grin and four missing teeth, Marie Isabel kept her arms wrapped around her father's waist as he spoke.

Before he was transferred to Sing Sing, Mariano had been at a facility that had no children's center. Once, in the visiting room there, Marie Isabel tripped and fell in front of him. He had to leave her on the ground; getting out of his seat to pick her up would violate the rules. The hardest part was explaining to his then 3-year-old daughter that her father would get in trouble if he reached for her.

Marie Isabel was clearly getting restless as her father and I spoke. Her wriggling escalated until, with the gleeful imperiousness of a newly crowned princess, she succeeded in leading him away. They left the Children's Center to get their photograph taken together beneath a banner that read, in ornate hand-painted script, "Thinking of You Always."

At 11:00 am, the Children's Center emptied abruptly. Women and children returned to their assigned tables in the main visiting room, while the men stood beside them--arms at their sides or clasped behind their backs--for "count."

Samuel--a 43-year-old black man with long, graying dreadlocks--is one of the inmates who staff the Children's Center. At count time, he told me, he sometimes looks around and does a silent accounting of his own. For every child in the room, there is likely another child who has been hurt by a prisoner's actions. For every family striving to connect inside Sing Sing, another has been ruptured by a crime. Samuel looks around the room and sees harm multiplying outward--ghost victims everywhere, not least his own.

Samuel sits in a small, toy-filled office in the back of the Children's Center, his hands folded in his lap as he carefully chooses his words. He was a few years out of high school, working in a watch-repair shop and expecting his first child, when he agreed to act as a lookout in a robbery. The victim, who turned out to be an off-duty housing officer, pulled out a gun and started shooting. Samuel's accomplice fired back and killed the man. Samuel, who was seriously wounded, was convicted of felony murder and sentenced to 18 years to life.

"For me, remorse is an action word," he says. "If I'm going to say I'm sorry, then my actions have to coincide with that. If someone really wants to express remorse, then they want to rehabilitate themselves."

Samuel pauses to accept a game of Candy Land from a little girl in pigtails. "For the most part, incarcerated men need to work on themselves, to make themselves better people," he continues. "Children hear what you say, but they more so watch what you do. It is this example they begin to shape their lives by."

Samuel's daughter was 6 months old when he went to prison. Now she is 22. In the interim, Samuel has acquired a bachelor's degree from Nyack College and a certificate in ministry and human services from the New York Theological Seminary, and he has taken parenting and Aggression Replacement Training. He's had one "ticket" in 22 years, for wearing a uniform with tapered pants. He'd brought them with him from another institution, where customizing was permitted.

He studies books with titles such as Boon Doggle: A Book of Lanyard and Lacing, and he can rattle off--and execute--elaborate ribbon-braiding techniques such as the Chinese Staircase and the Twisted Cobra. He recently turned down an opportunity to be transferred to a medium-security facility so he could continue his work at the Children's Center.

Lately, Samuel doesn't see his daughter as often as he used to: She's in college, working nights, and she likes to spend her free time with her friends. Samuel doesn't ask for more; if he were 22 and free, Sing Sing would likely not be where he'd choose to spend his weekends, either. But because he has managed to make himself an example to his daughter, he's granted himself a bit of paternal license. When he does see her, he warns her about bad company and instructs her to stick with school and stay away from drugs.

Samuel interrupts his narrative again, to issue colored string to a 4-year-old with golden curls piled atop her head. The girl's father, who sits at a nearby computer with his older son, does not take his eyes off his daughter as she ventures back with the string.

"It's our hope that by the time a child leaves out that door, that child is now filled with so much love from their father that it'll sustain them until the next time they come back," Samuel says. "That's what we try to do inside here."

Nell Bernstein is a freelance journalist who writes from Berkeley, California. This material is adapted from her book, All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated, and appears here with permission from The New Press. © 2005 by Nell Bernstein.

All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated

2005, The New Press

All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated is an intimate investigation into the lives of children of incarcerated parents by Nell Bernstein, an award-winning journalist and former Soros Justice Media Fellow at the Open Society Institute of New York. Bernstein's book discovers that a few innovative programs and brave leaders are finding ways to ensure the need for justice and public safety are met without punishing children.

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