When a family is separated because a parent is incarcerated, the emotional toll on children is lasting. COVID-19 has made it worse because corrections departments across the country have had to discontinue visits, leaving family and loved ones without opportunities to visit for over a year.
Even outside of the pandemic, challenges to communicating with an incarcerated loved one can be very difficult — and for children, devastating. But it doesn’t have to be.
This is important to us as legislators because we know policy can make a difference for everyone directly and indirectly involved — from children put at risk of major negative consequences by being separated from a parent to the parents suffering collateral damages caused by our justice system, and the taxpayers footing the bill for a criminal legal system that doesn’t provide the necessary support to families.
The issue is important to us for another reason: We both had an incarcerated parent when we were children, and we know firsthand the challenges of that experience. We know what it’s like to have that connection violently severed, to feel the absence of their love and care. We know what kind of long-term trauma this experience does to families, often extending far beyond the physical prison sentence.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, more than 80,000 Pennsylvania children have a parent who is incarcerated. While COVID-19 has dramatically changed visitation and access for families and loved ones, last week DOC announced that it will begin opening state prisons to visitors in phases, based on each facility’s rate of vaccination, number of active infections, and test results on the levels of the coronavirus in wastewater from prison facilities.
That is a step in the right direction as we emerge from the deadliest health crisis in our lifetime. But more needs to be done to rectify the problems we saw prior to COVID-19. Any action we take could have profound impact on children of incarcerated parents, and on whether their parent stays out of prison after their release — or ends up reincarcerated in a system that doesn’t do enough to prevent recidivism.
According to a Joint State Government Commission report, research has consistently shown that contact with family members eases an incarcerated person’s transition back into the community and reduces recidivism rates. Family members provide social control and support, both of which inhibit criminal activity. Phone contact with loved ones is especially vital to incarcerated people who may struggle with writing letters due to a lack of writing skills or inconsistent access to mail from loved ones, while email may help both parent and child maintain their connection.
Development of community-based resources to help parents and other caregivers address children’s needs when their parents are arrested and incarcerated has emerged as one of the most important recommendations. These resources would keep children informed about what is happening to their parents and provide support including transportation to visit their parents in prison.
Yet, fewer than half of parents incarcerated in state prisons had received a personal visit from their children, based on 2009 data shared in the JSGC report.
We are working on bills that would ensure communication between incarcerated parents and their children, regardless of their financial means, by providing them with one free phone call or email per month to each of their children and eliminating incarceration as a means for automatically removing parent rights.
We have also been advocating for videoconferencing since before the pandemic, for a reading program between parents and children. While we got some pushback on this in the past, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has been able to make more of this happen in recent months because the pandemic halted visitations.
It’s the letter writing, phone calls, and visits that we, as people who lived this experience as children, agree make the difference.
It’s time to see the bigger picture and understand that maintaining contact between children and their incarcerated parents is not a privilege but a necessity. The costs of cutting that connection are too great for everyone. And the potential gain for everyone from supporting the incarcerated individuals who have pivotal roles in their families’ lives, and could return to play a pivotal role in society, is too important to squander.
Donna Bullock is the elected state representative for the 195th District in North Philadelphia. Rick Krajewski is the elected state representative for the 188th District in West Philadelphia.