Monday, February 15, 2016

Visitation List

I remember the last time that I saw my daughter before I committed the crimes that would land me in prison.  I dropped by the townhome where she lived with her mother, hoping for an hour with my daughter before she left for a weekend trip to her grandparent's house. When she saw me getting out of the car, she ran to me, literally jumping into my arms. 

It was Halloween weekend, so I bought her a little present. It was a pink Hello Kitty watch. My daughter had recently celebrated her fifth birthday, and had never worn a watch. She barely noticed the gift, and beckoned me to help her draw shapes with colored chalk on the sidewalk. When it was time to leave, tears welled up in her eyes. She began to sob. It was is if she knew that something bad was about to happen. Children of people with addiction seem to be more acutely aware of the tormented waves roiling within their parents, even when their parents try desperately to hide that inner turmoil. 

I wouldn’t see my daughter again for five years, seven months, and twenty-nine days, and I counted every one of those days.  Her mother allowed letters and phone calls, but wisely refused to expose my daughter to the insanity of prison. The two hour contact visits are often tortuous for children.

Visitation rooms are crowded and loud.  Officers hover on both ends of the room, observing closely for illegal contact or passing of contraband.  All parties are required to stay at their assigned tables, and small children grow restless.  I never had a visit where I didn’t hear a crying child.  Children aren’t allowed to grab their parents’ hands and take them to go paint chalk dragons on the sidewalk. 
In short, visitation rooms aren’t places where children are allowed to be children.
Even if I had experienced a visit with my daughter, it wouldn’t have helped her to cope with the absence of her father in her life. I still missed her first day of Kindergarten, and couldn’t read books to her before bed. I couldn’t help her to deal with the anguish and confusion she felt when she wondered where her father had gone.  I couldn’t assuage the fears of separation that haunted her during the years I was away.  I couldn’t share with her the gifts of healing I was experiencing as I began to recover.  When the judge sentenced me to prison, she sentenced my young daughter as well.

Few people question what we expect in terms of visitation. When I was in county jail, I had to visit with my mother on a video screen. I couldn’t even hug her or look her in the eye, because the camera was located above the screen. Years later, I was shocked to learn that this had become the only way for families to visit loved ones in more than a dozen large Texas counties. This fact made me grateful that the prison system at least allowed for two-hour contact visits. 

But even the two-hour visits deprive families of the right to be a part of their loved-one’s lives. It should be understood that frequent and meaningful contact with family members is essential to rehabilitation and successful reintegration upon release. It is also essential for children. More than 40 percent of incarcerated males and 80 percent of females had children living with them at the time of arrest. 
Incarceration should never be the reason that children lose frequent access to their parents, and it is a tragic mystery that our society ever allowed prisons to become such closed systems. 
The Texas Senate will soon study prison and county jail visitation policies. This may be an opportunity to call into question the closed system we call prisons. With 109 prisons in every region of Texas, it is unconscionable that an incarcerated individual would be sent to a prison more than two hours from home.  Yet, prison classification officials routinely place men and women in facilities that are six to eight hours away from their closest relatives. Elderly parents with disabilities must get notes from their physicians in order to appeal for their sons and daughters to be moved to a unit closer to home. 

It is also time that we treat visitation as part of the rehabilitative process, for both the incarcerated individuals as well as their children. Families must have frequent and meaningful contact with their loved ones in environments that allow children to be children, yet only one state has a child-friendly visitation area. Less than ten states have overnight policies, and few of these policies are geared toward overnight stays with children. Few state prison systems include family contact when developing rehabilitative programs.  How do we expect incarcerated men and women to become fully productive members of communities within the very families that will support them upon release? 

The First Time I Saw My Daughter After Nearly Six Years
A closed prison system is not an ideal model. The entire period of incarceration should be geared toward moving the individual from intensive early services to gradually increasing community integration. Families must be part of this process at every step, with easy access to loved ones.  Nearly 95 percent of Texas’ incarcerated individuals will return to the community, so they must begin preparing people for release from day one.  Visitation is a critical part of that process. 

I finally saw my daughter the day after I was released. I heard the knock on the door, and nearly flew down the stairs. My daughter barely had a moment to see me before I lifted her off the ground and hugged her. She grabbed my neck and I heard her crying happy and nervous tears. I looked at her face, and realized that she was still a child. My child. 
Unlike so many children of incarcerated parents, my daughter will get to enjoy a significant portion of her childhood with a loving and active parent in her life. 

Resources and Citations

Youth Rise – A mentorship program for children impacted by parental incarceration.

Storybook Project – Connecting incarcerated mothers with their children.