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When Prison Pulls Families Apart

By Ken BloomfieldKen Bloomfield is editor in chief of Fortune News, a publication of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that works with ex-offenders. / November 9, 1992



WHILE Republicans rail against the breakdown of family values and Democrats talk about valuing families, the lock 'em up and throw away the key approach to criminal justice - supported by both parties - encourages the breakup of families.

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"I live hundreds of miles from my husband," began a letter we received at Fortune. "He's incarcerated at the other end of the state, so I don't see him much anymore because the trip takes too long and costs too much. His kids never get to see him, money's too tight. It's tearing us apart and the little ones hardly don't even know they got a father. Can you help me get him transferred closer to home? I got to do what I can to keep my family together."

In Washington, D. C., one study found that as many as 85 percent of all African-American men are arrested at some point in their lives; another study indicated that 1 in 4 young black men are either incarcerated, on probation, or on parole at any given time. Their crimes are most often linked to drug addiction, a problem best addressed by treatment rather than incarceration. An appalling number of young men of color (Latinos, too) are being taken from their families or deprived of the opportunity to beco me full-time fathers. Incarceration is devastating for the families of prisoners, both men and women. But when a single mother is arrested, it often means that the children have no one at home to care for them.

Rosanne D. spent 3 years behind bars. "When I went away I had to leave my kids with my grandmother. She was 62. It wasn't easy for her. My kids were teenagers. They were all over the place. She couldn't control them and they got into a lot of trouble. By the time I was getting out, they were being put away."

Women are being incarcerated at an alarming rate. At mid-year 1990 there were 43,541 women in federal and state prisons in the United States. This is an increase of 137 percent over the 1980 figures. Eighty percent of these women have children, more than two-thirds have children under the age of 18.

If there's no relative to take charge, foster care steps in. Children may get to see their mother only on the weekends - if at all. Sometimes mothers never get their children back. Cheryl E. wept as she told one of our counselors about her fears that because she did time she's lost her kids forever. "When I was put away for possession, welfare took my babies. I've done my time, I detoxed, I'm trying real hard, but they don't think I'm fit."

A system that separates parents from their children causes all of us harm. To punish those who really need help, to put away those who suffer the illness of drug addiction when what they need is treatment, ultimately places a burden on the entire community. Families are destroyed, lives are thrown into turmoil, and guilty and innocent alike must bear the consequences - consequences that we all eventually pay for with fear, increased victimization, and money.

MANY women enter prison pregnant. In New York, mothers have the right to keep their babies with them for the first year. California has an experimental "cottage system" in which mothers and children are allowed to live together in modified housing on the prison grounds. But some other states separate newborns from their inmate mothers.

The Children's Center at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York - run by Sister Elaine Roulet and her staff - reveals the good that an enlightened family policy can do. The New York Department of Corrections provides free monthly bus service for visitors. Six trailers are provided for family visits that last up to 46 hours. They provide the privacy and intimacy that is necessary to maintain a close and healthy family life.

Sister Elaine confirms what we know to be true. When families are kept together, when mothers and fathers are allowed liberal access to their children, when privacy and parent-child intimacy are respected, everyone benefits - parent, child and, ultimately, society.

If our society believes that family values are important and must be promoted vigorously, then even the families of prisoners should be protected. Mothers and fathers behind bars need to be encouraged and given the opportunity to keep their families together. Whenever possible, prisoners should be housed in facilities near their families, and programs such as The Children's Center need to be part of every prison facility.

Public policy needs to be drawn with children in mind. By ignoring children in their innocent years, we set them up for a future in which they, too, are likely to be judged "Guilty." What's the value in that?