In his State of the Union speech this past January, President Bush appeared to make a compassionate gesture toward children with incarcerated parents when he proposed an initiative that would include a three-year, $150-million program to provide them with mentors. Because this group of roughly 2 million children has virtually no political weight or representation, the attention to their plight was welcome. I became one of those children in 1981, when I was fourteen months old. My mother, Kathy Boudin, was sentenced to twenty years to life; my father, David Gilbert, seventy-five to life, in New York State maximum-security prisons.
Like many young children with parents in prison, I suffered from a range of developmental and behavioral problems, including petit mal, a childhood form of epilepsy, and abnormal difficulty learning to read. According to the Administration for Children and Families, children in this situation are less likely to succeed in school and more likely to have problems with substance abuse, gangs, early childbearing and delinquency. There are 2 million prisoners in the United States–the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world–and more than 55 percent of men and 60 percent of women in prison are parents. The country’s prison boom has thus torn apart families (most of them African-American or Latino) and punished increasing numbers of children for their parents’ crimes.
Bush’s mentoring program represents at best a misguided approach to dealing with this problem. Often mentors compete with and undermine the crucial relationship between children and their incarcerated parents, only to disappear when the program ends. While some mentoring programs have proven long-lasting and effective, many have little or no positive impact and may divert attention, time and resources from more substantial needs (although in the end, even Bush’s vaunted mentoring initiative received only $10 million in funding from Congress, less than $5 per child, per year).
After my parents’ arrest, I went to live with friends of theirs, who already had two sons, but I stayed in close contact with my biological parents. Rarely did I get to see either of my incarcerated parents more than once a month. Although the visiting room is the main place where children can directly interact with parents, some prisons do not even allow contact visits, and most that do permit them do not provide a child-friendly environment. The difference between my mom’s and my dad’s prisons illustrates both the dismal norm and what is possible in its place.
Great Meadows Correctional Facility, where my dad spent the better part of a decade during my childhood, does not have a visiting room that facilitates family relationships. In the room, with its cold cinderblock walls and long, wide tables separating inmates from visitors, contact is virtually impossible. After stretching across the table for a hug at the beginning of the visit, I had to spend the remaining time in a plastic chair across from my father. As a 9-year-old, I could not sit still and have a conversation for hours on end. I wanted to play games, sit on my dad’s lap, listen to him read to me. There were never any toys, games or activities. Nor was I permitted to bring any in with me. There was nothing for kids to do. Under those grim circumstances, I had to try to build a relationship with my father.
On the other hand, Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, where my mom has spent nineteen of her twenty-two years behind bars, is one of the best prisons in the country, and the visiting room shows it. It has a child-friendly, stimulating environment with a portion of the visiting room dedicated to a carpeted and cheerfully painted “children’s center.” The children’s center has games, toys, blocks, paper and pens, pillows, books–everything useful for normal mother-child interaction.
By age 4, I was building relationships with both my incarcerated parents through visits, letters and phone calls. For families torn apart by parental incarceration, each visit entails expensive travel, time off from work and school, and red tape. Phone calls from prison are pricey long-distance collect calls with added “security” charges; our phone bill often topped $300 per month. Even letter-writing presents its challenges: Weak literacy skills on either or both ends can make letters impossible, and stamps cost well more than the 25 cents an hour inmates are paid for their work in prison.
Children need help building and maintaining strong relationships with incarcerated parents. For me, it required money and an extensive support network, which are rarely available to children whose parents are in prison. But it is possible to help them by developing overnight visiting programs, providing transportation and, as at Bedford Hills, creating visiting facilities for children.
The federal government is moving in just the opposite direction. This past June, in Overton v. Bazzetta, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld Michigan Department of Corrections policies that severely limited visitation rights in state prisons. Some of these policies focused specifically on reducing the number of children visiting their incarcerated parents. The Court recognized that “letter-writing is inadequate for illiterate inmates and for communications with young children” and that “phone calls are brief and expensive,” but ruled that “alternatives to visitation need not be ideal…they need only be available.” The ruling goes further: Even “were it shown that no alternative means of communication existed…it would not be conclusive.” This suggests that children do not have a right to a relationship with their parents and gives financially strapped state governments a green light to cut costs by slashing visiting rights.
Had they been in place when I was growing up, the policies upheld by the Court in Overton would have denied me the right to develop meaningful relationships with my incarcerated parents. It was those relationships that enabled me to overcome the array of challenges I faced as a result of my parents’ incarceration.
Rather than terminating visiting rights as the Supreme Court allows, or placing our hopes in unproven and underfunded mentoring programs, state governments should cut costs and break the cycle of incarceration by promoting child-friendly reforms within prisons as well as effective alternatives to jail for nonviolent offenders and parents. The last thing children with incarcerated parents need is more rhetoric and empty promises.