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.