The most overlooked aspects of incarceration are the victims that have no voice. Victims so young that they seldomly understand what has happened to them. These are the children of the fathers that are incarcerated.
Imagine for a moment that you have a son. He looks forward to your return from work every day, and when you do he’s there to hug you. When you are home he’s always around, and his presence gives you meaning and purpose in life. To him, you are his hero in the flesh.
Imagine now that you have a daughter. She told you for months that she’s afraid to go to her first day of school. You promised her that you would be there for her on that day, No worries, and you kept your promise. To her you are her source of strength and inspiration.
Now imagine that starting today, you will never again be able to take your daughter to school or feel your sons constant presence:
You will watch your children grow up in photographs.
You will watch from afar as they graduate from high school.
You won’t be able to give your daughter away to the love of her life.
Or be there to celebrate the birth of your first grandchild.
Nor be there to impart life’s wisdom to your son.
From this point forward, you will yearn to keep that connection you once had with your children, and you will be haunted by thoughts of failure. You will cherish every visit you have with them, for the 3-5 hours you are allowed, and when they are with you you’ll say just about anything to keep them happy.
Finally, imagine that you have just finished visiting them in the prison’s visitation room and are now back locked in a cell. How might you feel? What thoughts might you be thinking? This is what it’s like to visit with your children in prison.
Except, there’s so much more. My ability to capture these truths and emotions fall dramatically short from the reality of prison life. If I can express one-tenth of the emotions and feelings of loss and longing, then I have succeeded.
In Penitentiaries Across The U.S.
Prison visitation is often a sterile experience. In most facilities, visits are held in a community area devoid of warmth, save for mono-colored walls and bolted down tables and chairs. You don’t have the luxury of choosing where to sit. You and your loved ones are watched by the guards with the same critical eye reserved for those under their care. Watched as if your children and family are guilty by association.
Your visits are timed. While you may start at a time of your choosing, you will finish at the exact time you are told. During times of overcrowding, your visit will be terminated early in order to accomodate someone else. Some facilities require that you make reservations online prior to visiting. While this creates problems of its own (like your 70 year old mother’s inability to use a computer or navigate the Internet), it prevents your visit from being terminated early due to overcrowding.
Corrections in Ohio
Here in Ohio, visitation may share some characteristics already mentioned with one key difference: the corrections department sees visitation for what it is, a key component of the rehabilitative process. Visits with family and loved ones are encouraged and viewed as an opportunity to build on the overall rehabilitative push. It’s a direction that began several years ago and that has continued under the current director Ms. Annette Chambers-Smith.
At my facility, a number of actions have been implemented in order to foster a positive experience duing the visitation process. For example, the walls of the visitation area have been painted with murals of soothing wildlife scenes. You can have pictures taken with your visitors, and the visitation area is wide and airy. During the Summer months there is an outside patio with picnic tables where you can sit and visit beneath the trees and blue skies.
Inside, the tables are small and personable. Children have access to a play room stocked with toys and amenities, and a television plays children’s movies. There’s even a dedicated inmate worker who tends to the children by reading them stories, playing games and helping the kids to be kids. In the main area your visitors are able to purchase food items from vending machines for you and themselves. There are even microwaves and condiments.
Recently, a staffer here started a pilot program allowing you and your visitors to play board and card games together while visiting. There are multiplayer family games and one on one games such as checkers and chess. There’s even hand held electronic game devices like Nintendo Switch for visiting children. These small considerations and attention to detail have meaningful impact on inmates and their families. They ease the stress and worries accompanying visitors into facilities like these, and they bring families together in ways that maintain and reinforce bonds between loved ones. This visitation model has great potential, and as of this writing it is being explored as an option at other facilities in Ohio.
Young children seldomly have any concept of what prison is about, save for that Dad was bad. I know guys who tell their children that they are on a business trip, and that they’re here ‘working’. They then opt to tell their children the truth months or years down the line when they are older. Is this the right thing to do? I mean, is it fair to the children? Fair to get their hopes up week after week, month after month, and sometimes year after year? I know men who’ve taken the direct approach and explained why Dad is here, and that he will not be coming home for a long time. Is this fair because it’s honest? Sometimes this works, othertimes children come away traumatized. Is it still the right thing to do?
Who says one is right and the other is wrong?
This is the dilemma of incarcerated fathers.
Todd — A Short Story
Over a 23 year period, I watched as the children of my friend Todd grew up without him. We spent the months and days outside walking the Hamster Wheel together, working out under the summer sun. Our conversations centered around the future and what we would do once home again, but frequently they were about his little girls.
The years passed, and the girls grew older. One day they were his little girls that I saw bouncing and dancing about on his visits, and the next they were highschool seniors. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
Todd’s experience over this same time period was different. He struggled to cope with not being there for his girls. He often openly worried about their happiness. His incarceration had a profound effect on him, and because of his children, he often discovered that his actions here were governed by his desire to return to them. From the time I first met him to the day he went home, I witnessed his transformation. Early on he was defiant toward authority and the perceived injustices he’d been handed from the moment of his arrest. As his children grew older, his sense of failure and self-loathing were discarded for desire to help and guide his children. His visits had great impact on him. Being able to be with his children during those times and in the positive atmosphere of visitation here, he realized that he had to find that proper path in life again. It became a driving force in his rehabilitation.
When the girls became teens he worried about the boys that came about. He inevitably worried about the heartbreak that comes with one’s first love, and he did his best to prepare his daughters for it. I began to see the emergence of a father concerned for his family and not just himself.
Throughout his incarceration, I’d heard numerous stories about his girls and saw them grow up in his photographs. Todd’s father Otis was his pillar in life, and it was his father who helped Todd maintain that connection with his children. I watched all of this, and I often wondered what the future held not just for Todd, but myself, too.
Then a few years ago, Otis passed away. By the time of Otis’s passing, I had met Otis a hundred times in Todd’s photos. Otis’s passing carved something from Todd’s soul, but losing a loved is like that here. You quietly grieve, you move on.
Todd was a strong willed man. He saw life as constant struggle and he took nothing for granted. Yet, if you ever met him he’d greet you with a smile and positive words. When it came to his children, his incarceration was something he struggled with. Not for himself, but for his children. He had days where he suffered from bouts of sadness and anxiety thinking about his children, and like any father, he wanted the best for them. Family had a major influence behind his rehabilitation, and he looked forward to a visitation event that the institution held every year: Family Day.
At my institution, administrators are actively engaged in the rehabilitative process. Every year a visitation event is held for inmates and their families where we are allowed to visit in an outside and informal setting. The event is called Family Day.
On this day, the institution erects a giant open air tent and contracts with outside vendors for food and beverages. The staff themselves grill and serve burgers and hot dogs for the inmates and guests. There are games for children to play and events like inmate bands playing, face painting, cotton candy for the kids, a lemonade stand, ice cream, a juice stand and an overall festive atmosphere. Inmates are able to walk the recreation yard with their visitors, throw Frisbee or softball, and play a number of outside games. It is by far the most positive family oriented event that I have ever experienced, and it is held every year. Visitors come from all over the country for the event. The impact this event has on the children that attend is invaluable, and it softens the sting of having a parent incarcerated. Family Day is a model that encourages proper behavior and self-introspection. In order to participate, inmates must display proper behavior for many months leading up to the event. Family Day should be copied at institutions everywhere for its rehabilitative aspects alone.
Todd’s little girls are grown and married now, having survived childhood without a father. I’d imagine that they’re a little more cautious about life and a bit tougher than most girls. Yeah, I suppose, but they made it. Todd spent the duration of his incarceration here, and by extension visited his children from here. I’ve sometimes wondered how his children would have fared had they had to endure the antiseptic visitation experience common to prisons elsewhere in the country, and not the rehabilitative minded efforts evident in Ohio.
In 2018, Todd was paroled and reunited with his daughters. He and his children are doing well. A success story for rehabilitation.
For every story that ends well like Todd’s, there are two that don’t. Families split apart under the pressure of time, and some children never recover from incarceration’s impact. No matter how you look at it, visitation plays an important role in this process. It’s an experience that can be very positive or very negative. One thing is for certain: It’s a role that has long lasting impact.
*So there you have it, the cold truth of visiting children while in This World. If this post gave you pause then I’ve done my job. Do share it with others.