A break for children of prisoners

By Cathy Weiss, Ann Schwartzman, and, | December 17, 2010

Stoneleigh Foundation Executive Director Cathy Weiss and Fellow Kathleen Creamer wrote an article for The Philadelphia Inquirer with Pennsylvania Prison Society’s Ann Schwartzman.

Incarcerated mothers now have Saturday visiting hours with their children.

When a mother is incarcerated, the impact on her family can be devastating. Regardless of the mistakes such women may have made, many were nevertheless the primary caregivers for their children, and the temporary loss of a parent is profoundly felt by a child.

In Philadelphia, that devastation has been compounded for years by the limited opportunities children are afforded to see and contact their incarcerated mothers.

At the Riverside Correctional Facility, Philadelphia’s prison for women, visitation has been offered Monday through Friday until 6 p.m., and visitors must check in no later than 5 p.m. As a result, it has been nearly impossible for many schoolchildren and their caregivers to make the sometimes lengthy trip to Riverside and get there in time. Many children therefore go months on end without any face-to-face contact with their mothers.

Starting this weekend, that will change. Philadelphia is introducing Saturday visitation as a pilot program. It could become permanent if the trial works for families and the facility.

Contact between mothers and children is good for everyone, and Riverside’s new policy is especially timely and valuable given the approaching holidays.

For mothers, more connections with the outside world during incarceration increase the likelihood of successful reentry and decrease the chances of recidivism and parole violations. And the most important connections they can have are with their families.

Most incarcerated women will eventually return home. Some of them, if not most, can be caring and committed parents. In fact, more than 85 percent of incarcerated mothers plan to reunite with their children after they are released from prison. Seeing their children often helps ease their transition to the outside world.

While no hard data is available for Philadelphia, it’s estimated that 25,000 to 30,000 children in the city have parents in custody. Research over the years has demonstrated that, as would be expected, children do better when their parents are around, and they are more likely to get into trouble when their connection to a parent is broken. Children whose parents are in jail are not different from other children in that respect.

Having a parent in prison is often very scary for children, especially if contact with the parent is limited. Visits may be the only way for a child of an incarcerated parent to get over fears and worries about the parent’s well-being. Children with incarcerated parents often experience separation anxiety, depression, grief, guilt, low self-esteem, behavioral issues, and substance-abuse problems. They are often confused and traumatized by their inability to see their mothers.

More and better visits help such children deal with their concerns, grapple with their mothers’ absence, and avoid behavioral problems. Consistent visitation can also ameliorate behavioral problems when parents return home. Although the children of incarcerated parents are often invisible, they will be more likely to have problems and come into contact with the justice system if their needs aren’t addressed.

For all these reasons, we commend the Philadelphia Prison System for taking this important step for children and families. We predict that the pilot Saturday visitation program will prove successful, and we hope it encourages the city to make the policy permanent and systemwide.

Ann Schwartzman is policy director for the Pennsylvania Prison Society. [She] can be reached at  aschwartzman@prisonsociety.org.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.