On the surface, it may seem as if prison families face the same difficulties as the “traditional” single parent in America. In fact, it may be even more difficult for prison families due to the lack of support and the willingness to discuss issues openly. Each of the families interviewed felt a lack of community support outside of family, friends, or online support.
When the husband is the primary wage earner and then imprisoned, replacing that income is difficult. Even if the family is owed child support, prison systems are not designed to collect it. If the family is still intact, child support is not a consideration.
Financial issues quickly rise to the top as a need in prison families. “A prison sentence in America today is a ticket to poverty, particularly if that person was contributing financially to that family,” says Quinlan. By providing social service support, Families in Crisis can help ward off potential issues as they occur and before they reach the crisis point.
There are many state and local community agencies that help families when income is limited. There are eligibility requirements for the bulk of the programs. An information and referral program, such as 2-1-1 can help point families in the right direction. 2-1-1 is a three digit dialing code similar to 9-1-1 and more than 55 percent of the nation has access to 2-1-1 as the primary number to call for information about community, state, and federal programs. The 2-1-1 website has a national status map on the number’s implementation in every state. In addition, www.airs.org has a directory of information and referral providers for areas that do not have 2-1-1 services.
Correctional Policies Impact on Families
Maldonado sums up how her family has been treated during her husband’s incarceration. “Most guards are respectful but others treat us like we are the criminals and that we are ‘below’ them.”
Correctional facilities attempt to help families maintain close ties by utilizing approved visitation schedules. Yet, the Urban Institute notes that because of correctional policies and practices the maintenance of family ties is actually hindered. Among some of these policies are:
All three families interviewed for this article list phone call prices as an obstacle to communication. Each correctional institution contracts with an outside provider to allow collect phone calls home. The provider often charges unusually large access fees, resulting in millions of dollars paid by prison families each year. For example, California receives approximately $35 million each year from phone call commissions, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Sending mail can be challenging as well. All mail to or from a correctional facility is monitored, with some incoming mail rejected. The primary reasons for monitoring mail are related to security, as well they should be. Some families, however, complain that items such as children’s crayon drawings are rejected as contraband, making it difficult for children to continue valued relationships with their parent.
Maintaining or Regaining Positive Relationships
Even though the areas listed are not the only ones prison families face, they are the most common. It is still possible, however, to maintain positive relationships, or repair damaged ones. Simms-Cox says her husband has learned to address the issues that put him in prison. She feels that prison has been a force for change in their marriage. Maldanado also comments “My husband is now clean and sober. He also realizes what a true family and unconditional love really is.”
Despite the overwhelming odds, relationships can and do thrive under these conditions. The key, Quinlan and Toth agree, is communication. Couples who are willing to work through the issues they faced outside of prison, as well as the ones that may arise after prison, stand a better opportunity to stay together than couples that do not.
While congressional leaders debate policies that directly impact prison families, the growing consensus is that something needs to be developed as a cohesive support system for these families. In 2002, Wade Horn, Ph.D., the Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spoke at a plenary session for the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative Grantee Conference. Although his underlying message was responsible fatherhood, many of his remarks dealt with the impact of incarcerated fathers on children and families today.
“Some 93 percent of prisoners are men,” he said. “By some estimates, 10 million children—one in seven—will, at some point before reaching age 18, have an incarcerated father. And the separation tends to be lengthy. For fathers in state prisons, the average sentence is 12 ½ years.”
The impact on families can be devastating, as separations tend to increase the chances that children who were already at risk of dropping out of school and engaging in criminal behavior will do so. Horn says, “Put the father in prison and, by some estimates, you make the child five to six times more likely to end up in prison than otherwise. Most of us can barely imagine the pain, shame, disruption, and despair that children experience when their father gets incarcerated.”
There is hope for families of prisoners, though. As more leaders, like Horn, recognize the need for underlying social service support for prison families, parenting and mentoring programs will increase throughout the U.S. There is no estimate or timeline for many of these activities, although experts agree that change is coming sooner rather than later.
Despite the difficulties of raising children while one or both parents are incarcerated is difficult, yet manageable. More prisons, like Toth’s are developing parenting curriculums designed to teach skills and increase interaction while families are separated. This movement also gives rise to hope that more efforts will be concentrated on the outside communities and keep families together upon the prisoner’s reentry into the community.
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