What About the Kids: Incarceration’s Forgotten Victims
November 21, 2013
Following up on the discussion started at the 2013 Stowe Prize programs, this Salon focused on the impact of incarceration on families.
Giselle Jacobs-Lawson, Community Outreach and Advocacy Specialist, Breaking the Cycle, http://www.cpa-ct.org/
Giselle Jacobs-Lawson, US Army Veteran and lifelong resident of Hartford is a University Assistant working as a Community Outreach and Advocacy Specialist for the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central Connecticut State University. In this capacity she provides outreach and education initiatives for the Children of Incarcerated Parents project.
After working several years as an Administrative Assistant and Target Balance Analyst in the banking industry, Mrs. Jacobs-Lawson decided to follow her hearts desire, which is to serve her community and make a difference in the lives of others. Mrs. Jacobs-Lawson has worked for several community organizations including the Center for Human Development - Connecticut Outreach as a Financial Counselor where she provided money management services to the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and their Hartford Young Adult Services Program. Most recently Mrs. Jacobs served as the capable and resourceful Assistant Executive Director for the Minority Construction Council in the City of Hartford where she used her fundamental knowledge of administrative support to aid in research, grant writing and fundraising.
Mrs. Jacobs-Lawson is a great example of someone who works hard and overcomes life’s challenges to serve her community and the Nation. She is a recent graduate of the City of Hartford Department of Families Children Youth and Recreation – Youth Development Practitioners Academy and the Connecticut Commission on Children - Parent Leadership Training Institute. She also attended the Building One America and the New Jersey Regional Coalition - National Leadership Training. She is engaged in civic affairs, socially, politically and otherwise. Her interest in the advancement of her community through the generous contribution of her time, talent and resources has earned the respect of many residents in the city.
Virginia Lewis, Program Manager, Community Partners in Action
Virginia was born and raised in Hartford. She has worked in the Human Service field for the past thirty –five years. Virginia started her career with Community Partners in Action in 1997 as a Substance Abuse Counselor for the than newly created Project SAMH program. She recognized the need for leadership and eventually became Project SAMH’s Program Manager. Virginia’s skills in listening, counseling, and encouraging individuals were fine tuned during those ten years working with people with multiple diagnoses. Virginia saying is “your clients are your best teachers”. Virginia’s past six years in the criminal justice systems has presented many rewards. As Program Manager of Hartford AIC she combines the beat of both worlds her clinical skills and management experience.
Virginia is active in her community block watch and serves as a broad member for AIDS Project Hartford and the KNOX Foundation. She’s been married for Forty years and is the proud grandmother of four.
Breaking the Cycle is a grassroots support organization for children of parents who are incarcerated. Her parents were incarcerated when she was young and had to be watched over by her grandmother, and remembers looking for role models, being pregnant at 15, living on her own at 16, and dealing with many struggles as a young mother with no support. In 2010, after attending dialogues across Hartford about incarceration, Giselle was invited to serve on a steering committee through the library and organized a youth forum at the downtown library. At the forum, social workers, law enforcement, youth, an others effected by incarceration discussed how to help children and families of those in prison. In California, a Bill of Rights for Children of Incarcerated Parents was developed and served as a guide for what children need. Eight task forces came out of the forum (ie. A school task force, transportation task force, support task force) and Giselle was asked to head the support task force in December 2010. The task force started with meetings in her living room, considering ways to give back to the community with the idea that there are more resources when working together. Today, the group is Breaking the Cycle. The group now also offers programs for incarcerated families, lobbies at the LOB, partners with organizations like CCSU, and works on behalf of families. Her son had been incarcerated, was released, but was incarcerated again recently for missing parole – she saw that though it had an impact on her and her son, it had a bigger impact on his daughter, who saw her father return to prison one week before her 10th birthday. They teach people that children should not be shamed that their parents are incarcerated, but that they can make there own choices – they need to be empowered. Breaking the Cycle is now starting a pen pal program for children of incarcerated families and is soliciting the help of faith based organizations, but has not had a response.
Virginia has a facility that houses 33 men on parole and bail, and some stay up to 1 or 2 years, as well as a walk-in program for men dealing with bail and looking to be educated on drug and alcohol rehabilitation. They run rehabilitation programs that help young men and women make better decisions. At one point, the program was insensitive, calling the program Alternative to Incarceration, and has since renamed itself Alternative in the Community. They run a special program for women, Women Offenders Case Management (WOCM) that helps women, mothers, and children of incarcerated families. The program assesses the needs of the women, as well as their relationships with their children, males, and their parole officers. Some women have been with the program for 18 months, have been in and out of prison and parole for years. The organization has also changed its structure to allow children to enter the facility and visit with their clients at least once per week, often partnering with the Department of Children and Families and other organizations/departments. Many of their clients do not understand that their decisions affect not only them but the people around them. Change is just starting around this issue and you have to have sustainability, especially since it deals with children (clients must have continued support once they leave). Her challenge to the group is how to continue support and ensure that programs sustain to help both those who are incarcerated and their children. Collaboration helps sustain funding while helping the clients. Reuniting with children after years of incarceration is difficult for parents who have been separated, and Virginia’s program also provide support and training for parents.
Audience comment: As a reverend, he is surprised that faith-based organizations are not responding to Giselle’s request. He promised to help “get the ball rolling,” as he is concerned about children not receiving the support they need. Collaboration is the key to change – when we are on the same page, change will happen. He is encouraged by what Virginia does, and knowing that when young men are incarcerated and released they are receiving the opportunities they deserve. Many young black men, in particular, only have two strikes. He is involved with an organization Mothers Organizing Against Violence, and many members have children in jail. He says that it is a shame that faith-based organizations have been absent from this effort, and will motivate other pastors to take action. “If everyone is sincere about making change, it will happen – it’s going to happen.”
Audience member: Is there a way to find out if prisons and facilities are willing to help make this effort move forward?
- Giselle: Prisons are more receptive when there are events and conversations in the community around the issue. If someone with a relationship with the Department of Corrections reaches out, it may help get their efforts “through the door.” Her son is recruiting for Breaking the Cycle from prison, and is writing to her about fathers coming home who want to be there for their children, but truly need to start building their relationships before they are released.
- Audience member: CT is very progressive by having commissions which work to allow children access to their incarcerated parents. It often takes time to close the gap between what the commission and groups are working towards and what the families experience, but Connecticut is working to improve the relationships between parents and children. Many states now only have video visitation and have ended all human contact with children.
- Audience member: Left the State to work in the private sector. The Department of Correction once had a progressive leader who allowed her to take incarcerated men and women into the community to do service at nursing homes and other organizations. The group Cabbage Patch was then developed in the prisons to allow prisoners to read to their children – during that time, she experienced no riots, no run-aways, which showed building the men’s’ relationships with their children and others created a more positive environment. The cycle is ready for Virginia and Giselle’s organizations and efforts – it’s an opportunity for change.
Audience member: It’s her impression that the Department of Children and Families is responsible for many children of incarcerated parents – what cooperation do you get from DCF in providing transportation and visitation?
- Audience member: It depends on who the parent is – DCF is more supportive of children who need to connect with incarcerated mothers. A new DCF fatherhood engagement team is involving fathers and their families in the conversation to find alternatives for foster placements. DCF could certainly do more, but is currently very active in maintaining relationships between children and their parents.
Audience member: Is working on a program for fathers and kids and reading. Children who go to school and are unable to read are 3,500 words behind and do not pass 3rd grade mastery test. Fathers play a key role in parenting and she is working to bring books to prisons so children can read with their fathers and discuss books. It has been a hard road, and they are currently working in New Haven schools and planning a December 30 event at Yale, but would like to take their efforts to other districts and work with fathers and children statewide. When fathers are involved, it is proven that children do better in school. Her church also purchases gifts every Christmas for children of incarcerated parents.
- Giselle: What are the chances that Breaking the Cycle can work with the organization and church? A lot could be accomplished together.
- Audience member: Meeting dates for her organization changed so they do not meet at the same time as Breaking the Cycle, which will hopefully lead to more partnerships.
Audience member: Is the reading problem also related to the adult literacy rate being so low?
- Giselle: Yes. When she was a child, her mother and grandmother had books and were reading, so she was always reading as well. Now, she goes into homes and there are no books and no reading between parents and children. Parents need to learn from their children, so encouraging children to read with parents might also inspire a love of reading in parents.
- Audience member: Young men who cannot read often do “stupid things,” and they continue to do so to hide that they cannot read. Some kids are told they should not read, or are not taught to read, which continues the cycle. You need to instill goals in children. Of 50,000 teachers in CT, there are less than 2,000 African-Americans, less than 2,000 Hispanics, less than 100 Asians, and less than 100 Native Americans – diversity is needed, and role models so they can set goals and aspire to be successful.
Audience member: It is difficult because Department of Corrections does not allow children to bring books or toys in, nor do they provide items for kids – they are in a stark environment, are allowed to hug their parent quickly, then have to sit across a table. DCF is required to bring children to see their parent on a monthly basis, but they do not always do so – they can report that they brought the child, but even if its untrue they are not required to change their report. Families have to sign up on the visiting list (space is limited), and if under 16 need to have 2 forms of identifying (some facilities require ID for infants), and rules change from facility to facility. If family members have a felony on their record, they cannot visit someone incarcerated (even if the parent of a child looking to visit their other parent). If you make it onto the list, you must arrive early, be dressed properly, go through metal detectors, and then wait between stages. You are only allowed a 1-hour visit, and time starts from when they call the inmate not when they enter the room. Stories of unfairness in visitation and seeing family members are not told because of fear of retribution. Some Departments of Corrections look to preserve the connection between parents and children as a right, but Connecticut looks at it as a privilege.
- Audience member: CT’s Department of Corrections policies are more transparent and progressive than other districts, and are posted on their website. CT DOC’s jails and prisons house both detainees and those being imprisoned for less than a year, and do not always allow contact visits. Touch is very important to maintaining relationships. CT currently has an interim Commissioner of Corrections, and hopes that a more sensitive Commissioner – perhaps a female – will be appointed.
Audience member: What’s happening to support children of incarcerated families outside of the prison setting? Are there programs or services that are being provided?
- Audience member: Families in Crisis has funding from Central Connecticut State University to provide support for children. They also partner with Judy Dworin Performance Project to support kids through dance and movement. Equine therapy is a new program that Families in Crisis is beginning. Children have a stronger impact when they’ve had a relationship with their parents prior to incarceration, and need to support children who still want to see their parent every weekend, or perhaps no longer want to see them. Some children say their relationships with their parents improve when they are incarcerated – sometimes it is the first time they have been sober, nonviolent, etc. Families in Crisis is a statewide organization that provides family counseling in major urban areas.
Audience member: Accessing children of incarcerated parents is challenging – there is no list, have to search for the children. The question is how to reach the families and children.
Audience member: Even if fathers cannot read, they should be able to look at picture books with their children to begin to enjoy reading to get past the stigma of being illiterate. She is from the Unitarian Universalist East and has a social justice committee, as well as an interest in such reading programs and to help families of incarcerated parents. She will try to work directly with Giselle to partner.
- Giselle: Breaking the Cycle is looking to start a support group in Manchester and looks forward to the partnership.
Audience member: He is originally from New London but now lives in Springfield. Was late in arriving because of a trial going on in Springfield this week about a multi-racial young man who was an entrepreneur and family member, ten charged with doing gun running and drugs in the black and Latino community. The FBI approached him 2 years ago to spy on the Muslim community in Western Massachusetts and had his wife as an informant. A few nights ago, he and others went to visit the man in a Ludlow prison and was shocked to see little children separated from their father by a thick glass partition but were still happy. Why are there more visits for men than women?
- Audience member: There are more men getting visits because the women stick by their partners, while the men often disappear and do not visit their female partners in prison.
INSPIRATION TO ACTION
- Support and encourage support of organizations like Community Partners in Action and Breaking the Cycle which provide support to families of incarcerated men and women
- Learn more about California's Children of Incarcerated Parents: A Bill of Rights
- Read the book Secret Saturdays by Torrey Maldonado, a story about a young boy who lies about his whereabouts so he can visit his father in prison
- Advocate on behalf of incarcerated men and women and their children at the Legislative Office Building and with other activist groups
- Get involved with Breaking the Cycle's forthcoming pen pal program
- Contact Jackie Bryant to learn more about her organization's efforts to start reading programs for children whose fathers are incarcerated (programs with both the child and father), and get involved with her upcoming program in Hartford on December 4
- Visit the Department of Corrections and Department of Children and Families websites to learn more about the commissions and the system in Connecticut
- Learn more about the work of Families in Crisis, Inc.
- Continue the discussion by posting a Comment below!