"The kids are not responsible for the decisions we adults make," says an inmate.
More than 2 million childre have a parent in prison and statistics say they'r up to six times more likely to go down that same road than othe children. These are big number that help explain overcrowding outdated prison buildings overworked staffs an shockingly high recidivism rate that plague corrections system nationwide
But there may be a way out of the hole: the Coalition for a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents. Founded in San Francisco in 2003, the Coalition created an eight-point bill of rights meant to protect, educate and care for children whose parents have been incarcerated. This effort has been adopted with gusto in Philadelphia, especially by the Pennsylvania Prison Society, which led a forum last week for advocates, caregivers and people involved in the correctional system to discuss how to care for and protect the rights of these children.
"A lot of what we're doing is raising the issue," says Ann Schwartzman, Prison Society policy director. "These kids really end up being invisible."
The discussion ranged from training law enforcement officials on how to act when there is a child present during the time of the arrest (Right No. 1) and allowing contact visits in prison (Right No. 5) to providing programs to educators and caregivers about how to reduce the stigma or embarrassment that a child with a parent in prison faces (Right No. 7).
Ann Adalist-Estrin, director of the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated, said children face many difficulties if they are not allowed an arena to vent or to meet other kids in a similar position. She applauded the Prison Society for its SKIP (Support for Kids with Incarcerated Parents) program, which meets during school hours and allows children in similar situations to talk. Adalist-Estrin also discussed the importance of maintaining a bond between parent and child, saying that prisoners who have regular visitors are six times less likely to re-enter the system.
"If the children choose to continue this relationship, they should have it," she said, citing solutions such as incarcerating a prisoner close to home and allowing weekend visits.
Community organizations, including the Prison Society, help facilitate these visits by organizing buses to various prisons around the state and having Virtual Visitation programs that allow kids to talk to their parents via video camera. During actual visits, the children are allowed to touch their parent — something unique to Philadelphia. According to prison-system spokesman Bob Eskind, some prisons also provide special rooms away from the general visiting area, if arranged in advance.
"You can certainly hold your child, hug your child, kiss your child," says Eskind. "We're aware that family re-unification is an important issue and we work with a number of outside agencies to try and bridge those gaps."
Still, coalition members say more can be done, such as making visiting rooms more kid-friendly and extending visiting hours so that school-age children are able to attend. Though some prisons in the area have visiting hours until 9 p.m., others require signing in by 4:30 p.m., making it difficult for some children to arrive in time.
While the bill of rights campaign is on its beginning legs in the Philadelphia area — the coalition, still in its formative stage, will ultimately work locally to get some of the "rights" enacted — those at the forum were optimistic that it would find support from politicians, family members and the corrections community. They still have a long way to go.
"We've heard about it," says Eskind. "I don't know if it's led to any re-evaluation of policy, but we're aware of it."
While the group aims for policy changes, looking out for the kids remains focal. As Schwartzman read statements to the crowd from men at the State Correctional Institution at Graterford, outside Philadelphia, the desire to keep their kids from making the same mistakes became a familiar refrain.
"The kids are not responsible for the decisions we adults make," one letter read. "It's important for us to explain to our children that it is us, not them, that are responsible.
by Francesca Heintz