Punishment for the whole family

California prison officials want to prohibit parents convicted of drug offenses from touching their children -- even infants and toddlers -- for one year.


Nell Bernstein
May 8, 2002 11:25PM (UTC)

Marie (not her real name) remembers the look on her 2-year-old daughter's face as the child pressed herself against the inch-thick window that separated the two. The toddler pounded on the glass partition with tiny fists, calling out and crying. "Come on, Mom! Come out of there!"

Marie could only watch and reach out in a futile response. A prisoner in county jail, she was forbidden to have contact with her child. It was another four months before finally, upon her release, Marie was able to touch her daughter.

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"It was awful," she says. "I've always had her with me, ever since she was born, and then all of a sudden she was snatched away from me. I know I felt bad, so she must have felt even worse, because she didn't understand. She must have thought I didn't want her anymore."

If sweeping changes in prison visitation rules proposed by the California Department of Corrections (CDC) become law, Marie's experience is likely to be repeated in state prisons across the state, where prisoners with drug-related convictions will be barred for the first year of their terms from contact visits with anyone, including their children. Often a rule of incarceration in county jails, a ban on contact visits in state prisons, where inmates serve much longer sentences, is rare. And, according to research, it is potentially harmful to inmates and their children.

Decades of research, including at least one study commissioned by the CDC, have concluded that prison inmates do better when they get visits with the ones they love. In terms of both rehabilitation and development, incarcerated parents and their children benefit from time together: The adults are less likely to return to prison; the children do better with emotional adjustment, behavior, even with I.Q. scores.

And the younger the child, the more crucial the contact. "Touch is basic to the nurturing process," says Dr. Barbara Howard, associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Promotion of Child Development Through Primary Care, in Annapolis, Md. "A baby looking through a plate of glass at his incarcerated mother would really be looking at his reflection in the window, not making a connection with the parent at all."

But a baby looking at himself in a glass partition cannot smuggle drugs to his parents, say California prison officials, who maintain that visitation is a point of transfer for drugs from outside. Under this rationale bonding, regardless of its therapeutic qualities, is an indulgence that prisons can ill afford. In fact, additional changes proposed by the CDC include a rule that would limit kisses between inmates and visitors to five seconds or less, and another that would prohibit fathers in prison from holding children older than 7 on their lap at any time, a step that officials say is aimed at preventing potential molestation.

The new revisions explicitly define visitation as a privilege, not a right, a change that some inmate relatives and advocates claim is meant to unfairly punish inmates rather than strike a blow against drug smuggling. In the process, they say, children may suffer the most.

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"It's beyond insulting," said Chris Jackson at a March hearing on the proposed changes. She testified that her husband is serving a life sentence at Folsom State Prison on a third-strike burglary conviction. "It's inhumane. It just punishes the families."

Adds Donna Wilmott, family advocacy coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in San Francisco and herself a former prisoner: "These new regulations criminalize family members, saying that if you care about somebody in prison, you're suspect. Communication and association are human rights, not privileges.

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"The right to a mother's touch," she adds, "is beyond fundamental -- it's primal."

Even President George W. Bush stood up recently for the rights of the children of prisoners, rallying his "armies of compassion" to "help to heal broken families once prisoners are released," and mentor a group he called, in an address to the NAACP, "the forgotten children [who] should not be punished for the sins of their fathers." His 2003 budget, he told the audience, includes $25 million for the Mentoring Children of Prisoners Initiative.

The California crackdown on contact visits comes at a time when state prisoners are being held mainly in remote rural areas, and visitation already has dropped off dramatically nationwide due to the inability of inmate relatives to get to their loved ones behind bars. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, 60 percent of parents in state prison nationwide report being held over 100 miles from home.

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In 1978, according to a study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, only 8 percent of women prisoners had not received a visit from their children. By 1999, when the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted its own major survey, 54 percent of mothers in state prisons -- nearly all of which allow contact visits, reported never having had a visit from their children.

About 200,000 children currently have a parent in a California state prison. It is difficult to determine how old these children are and where they are living; police, courts and prisons are not required to ask those they arrest, sentence and detain about the status of their children. But nationwide, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 58 percent of the 1.5 million children of incarcerated parents are younger than 10 years old. A survey of visitors to three California state facilities found that 55 percent of visiting children were 6 or younger, and 34 percent were 3 or younger.

It is for the very young that touching, being held and listening to a mother's voice are crucially important to development. "If you're talking about children under a year of age, your main means of communication is touch," says Barbara Howard of Johns Hopkins. "Yes, we encourage people to talk to babies and read to babies, but babies don't really understand what you're saying. They respond to eye contact and the rhythm of your voice."

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Denise Johnston, M.D., director of the Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents in Pasadena, Calif., conducted a study of county jail visiting environments at 57 facilities and found that, when viewed from a child's perspective, they were hostile and confusing.

"There are things people normally don't think about," says Johnston, a pediatrician. "Cement floors, concrete walls, a steel counter in front of the window, plastic or metal chairs -- that seems so irrelevant, but in fact for small children, the amount of the surface of their body that comes into contact with this cold environment is huge compared to adults. There can also be aural distortions, and they often can't hold the phone correctly because they're little."

Johnston recalls one young girl who was so confused by visiting her mother through glass that when her mother called the next day, the girl asked her, "Are you dead, Mommy?"

When her mother reminded her that she had just visited the day before, the child replied, "It's like TV in there -- I'm not sure it's really you."

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Researchers David Fanshel and E.B. Shinn, authors of the 1978 book "Children in Foster Care," found that children who regularly visit with parents from whom they are separated show better emotional adjustment, higher I.Q. scores and more improvement in behavior than those who do not. A 1972 study of California prisoners -- still the most frequently cited in the field -- found that inmates who had regular, ongoing visits were six times less likely to reenter prison during their first year out than those who had no visitors.

These findings, wrote researchers Norman Holt and Donald Miller in "Explorations in Inmate-Family Relations," a 1972 report from the research division of the California Department of Corrections, suggest that "it might be well to view the inmate's family as the prime treatment agent and family contacts as a major correctional technique."

Additional studies, including one conducted by the New York state Department of Correctional Services in the early 1980s, found that family visits improved offender behavior -- in prison and after release. A 1985 study by the Massachusetts Department of Corrections concluded that corrections programs that worked to support social bonds, including those to family, decreased recidivism.

Nonetheless, under the proposed regulations for California prisons, contact visits will be denied to all drug offenders, with the exception of those convicted of simple possession. Those convicted of other crimes, including murder, will still be eligible for such visits. The rationale for singling out this population, as spelled out in the CDC's notice of proposed regulations, is that contact visits may provide drug offenders with a means of "continuing their enterprise."

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The presumption that contact visits facilitate drug smuggling, says CDC spokesperson Russ Heimerich, is based on experience. Of 800 documented drug-related incidents in state prisons last year, he says, 150 involved visitors, accounting for more than half the total amount of drugs coming in. (The rest, he says, enter via packages, mail and "miscellaneous"). While the CDC does not keep track of how many such incidents involve children, he says there is plenty of "anecdotal evidence" of visitors using children to ferry drugs inside -- even going so far as to hide drugs in a soiled diaper.

Although drug offenders are not the only ones who receive drugs from visitors, adds Heimerich, "We clamp down as tightly as possible especially on those who are drug offenders because it gives them a way to clean up."

The CDC figures on contraband come from incident reports rather than a systematic statewide study. But a recent report to the Florida Legislature by the Justice Council Committee on Corrections -- which did conduct a statewide study -- contained an illuminating finding: While 46 percent of corrections officers surveyed believed that most contraband came from visitors, only 2.5 percent of contraband incidents statewide in fiscal year 1997-1998 were actually attributable to visitors.

"Security measures which are overzealously applied, resulting in only a small improvement in institutional safety and which extract a huge toll in disenfranchising families," the Florida committee concluded, "must be revisited and reevaluated."

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About 43 percent of women prisoners in California state facilities are drug offenders. The majority of these are single mothers, most of whom are expected to resume caring for their children at the end of their sentences. Withholding contact for a year is likely to make that difficult and crucial reunion even more challenging.

Once an incarcerated parent is released, notes Dr. Howard, "if they don't have a good relationship with the child, then their ability to take care of the child and have the child be responsive to them will be much diminished. If there were no bodily contact at all, I would expect no relationship at all with young children."

Alissa went just three months without touching her children, but undoing the damage took much longer. She was in the county jail at the time for credit fraud. The thought of her small boys sitting in plastic chairs shoulder to shoulder with other visitors, gaping at her through the glass, was too much for her -- and, she feared, for them -- to bear, so, like quite a few other mothers in county jail, she chose to forgo visits altogether.

"Every time I want to hug you," 6-year-old Dion told his mother when she called home, "I have to go to your picture."

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When Alissa was transferred to a state facility where she could see her children in person, she couldn't wait to hold them. But the reunion was not as she had imagined it. "When they came the first time it was so sad," she recalls. "They just looked, and they smiled, but they were afraid to come touch me. I grabbed them and I held them for a long time, and they were really cheesy. They were stiff, like I was a stranger."

Donna Wilmott's daughter was 4 years old when Wilmott went to prison for two years on conspiracy charges related to her involvement with the Puerto Rican independence movement. Wilmott spent her first weeks behind bars in solitary confinement. During that time she was permitted only window visits. Her husband came twice a week, but Wilmott asked him not to bring their daughter.

"I was desperate to see her," Wilmott says, "but I didn't want to put her through that. If you put a glass barrier between a child and a parent, it's crazy-making for the children. They feel they can't get to the person they love -- there's this wall between them that they don't understand. It's almost like putting the parent in a box. The message children get is 'Your mother is so bad you can't touch her. She's dangerous.'"

Should the new regulations be enacted, says Wilmott, many women prisoners will likely decide to forgo visits altogether. "Most women I've interviewed in the security housing units (high-security prison wings where contact visits are not allowed) said, 'No, I don't want my child to see me in here. I can't do visits like this.' If drug offenders lose contact visits, I can guarantee there will be people who will just defer the visits. It's too painful."

Wilmott was fortunate enough to be transferred to a federal prison that had a special area set up for mother-child visits, with a patio, swings and a carpeted room with books and toys. "A lot of times my daughter would just sit curled up on my lap the whole time," Wilmott recalls. "It was very reassuring to her, and I think it was one of the reasons she did so well while I was incarcerated. The frequency of our visits, the physical contact and the more relaxed setting really made a difference."

The debate over prisoners' rights -- which ones they must relinquish as a means of punishment and which ones they retain -- is a perennial one. But the issue of which rights, if any, children should retain once their parents are sent to prison is rarely discussed with an eye to law or policy. That children will suffer for their parents' crimes is virtually inevitable. The question is whether the system that exists to punish the parent should be modified to reduce -- or exaggerate -- the effect on the child.

"Kids want that motherly touch," says Dorothy Gaines, who spent six years in federal prison on drug conspiracy charges before President Clinton commuted her sentence last year. "They already feel that you're distant from them, and when they can't touch you, it's not good for them mentally."

Like Donna Wilmott, Gaines started out in a facility that did not allow contact visits but was ultimately transferred to one that did. "My son wanted to be selfish," she recalls. "He wanted to get the most hugs, sit on my lap the longest. I remember one visit when my kids set their watches back, thinking that would give them more time to visit."

According to the CDC's Russ Heimerich, the department is now considering public comment on the proposed changes and may make revisions before finalizing new regulations. "We're weighing the benefits of contact with children against the benefits of keeping drug offenders off drugs," he says.

Dr. Howard suggests that the needs of the prisons, their prisoners and the prisoners' children could be managed without the suspension of contact visits between parents and young children. "If you're worried about babies smuggling drugs in, take the diaper off," she proposes. "Hand the baby to the parent naked and provide a diaper on the inside. Get over it."


Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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