April 7, 1999

PARENTS IN PRISON: A special report.; As Inmate Population Grows, So Does a Focus on Children


Baba Eng had been a prisoner at Sing Sing for 22 years, serving a life sentence for murder, when a new inmate walked into the shower room one day and stared at his face.

''Dad!'' the stranger finally exclaimed.

The man was his son, whom Mr. Eng had not seen since his arrest, and who now was in prison himself for armed robbery. ''It was the worst moment of my life,'' Mr. Eng recalled. ''Here was my son; he had tried to imitate my life.''

Mr. Eng's experience reflects a side of the nation's prison-building boom that is only now gaining attention: there are seven million children with a parent in jail or prison or recently released on probation or parole.

Those numbers alarm experts who say that having a parent behind bars is the factor that puts a child at greatest risk of becoming a juvenile delinquent and adult criminal.

Although most jails and prisons do not even ask new inmates whether they have children, a few are taking steps to counter the effect of parental incarceration as experts have begun to realize the seriousness of the problem. Some prisons have created special visiting areas for children; some offer parenting classes for inmates.

But the experts also warn that the emphasis on imprisonment to fight crime may be helping to create the next generation of criminals.

''There is no free lunch in this business,'' said Lawrence Sherman, dean of the University of Maryland's school of criminology and criminal justice. ''If you increase the number of people arrested and sent to prison, you may actually be creating another problem. There is a multiplier effect.''

There are 1.96 million children who have a parent or other close relative in jail or prison on any given day, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a branch of the Justice Department, and 5 million more have parents who have been incarcerated and are on probation or parole.

The link between the generations is so strong that half of all juveniles in custody have a father, mother or other close relative who has been in jail or prison, said Allen J. Beck, chief of corrections statistics at the bureau. About 40 percent of the 1.8 million adults in jail and prison have a parent, brother or sister behind bars, Mr. Beck said.

There are several reasons children with a parent in prison are more likely to get in trouble, experts say. Most of these children grow up in families troubled by poverty, abuse, neglect and drug use. And separation from a parent -- for any reason -- is a well-documented problem for children.

But incarceration adds a special hazard. Children who see a parent arrested and handcuffed, and who are frisked by guards during a prison visit, become contemptuous toward law enforcement. More troublesome, many children with a father behind bars make a hero of him.

''When children are not in contact with their parents, it is a breeding ground for idealization, and when the parent is a big-time criminal, they can turn them into legends,'' said Jaime Inclan, a clinical psychologist who is director of the Roberto Clemente Center, a mental health center serving poor families on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Despite the dimensions of the problem, little attention is paid because the criminal-justice system is set up to deal with offenders, not their children.

In most cities, when the police make an arrest, when a judge passes sentence, or when an inmate enters jail and prison, no one asks whether the offender has children -- or, if they happen to ask, does anything with the information. And inmates are often evasive about their children, out of shame or fear of losing custody or government benefits.

There is so little research on the subject that there is no agreement even on the seemingly simple issue of whether it is good for children to visit their fathers or mothers behind bars.

Juliana Perez, a social worker who directs a parenting program in the county jail in San Antonio, says contact between incarcerated parents and their children is essential. In addition to helping the children, Ms. Perez said, ''if the system doesn't allow bonding, we destroy whatever chance we have of changing the offenders' behavior.''

But Judge Kathleen Richie of the Juvenile Court in Baton Rouge, La., disagrees. ''The more these kids are exposed to prison by visiting, the more they get used to it, and prison loses its stigma,'' Judge Richie said.

She recently had a case in which a social worker was taking four children to prison to visit their mother, who had been convicted of selling crack cocaine and was awaiting trial on charges of neglecting the children. Judge Richie ordered that the visits take place in her chambers, with the mother in civilian clothes, so the children would not become accustomed to prison.

The mother was puzzled why prison visits were a problem. She had taken her children to visit her friends and relatives in prison for years before her own arrest. Three of the four children have since been arrested and sent to juvenile prisons.

''Sadly, these kids have fond memories, and their only memories, of their mom behind bars,'' Judge Richie said. ''If you have parents in jail, then it is part of your life, and there is nothing offensive about it.''

The Fathers
Staying in Touch With Some Help

The Children's Center of the visiting room at Sing Sing is a small glass-enclosed space with shelves of children's books, boxes of building blocks and toy cars, a crib full of stuffed animals, and a computer.

It may not look much different than a day care center. But in one of the nation's oldest and most forbidding prisons, it is a revolution, an attempt to create a haven where convicts can meet quietly with their children in an effort to preserve, or rebuild, the family bonds that prison often breaks.

One day Hector Millan, a 38-year-old from East Harlem serving a 20-year to life sentence for murder, was seated at a low table with his young grandson, Hector 3d. His wife, Maritza, stood nearby. Mr. Millan has three sons and two daughters, and is one of the lucky inmates who is still married and visited by his family.

Nationwide, fewer than a quarter of male inmates are married, and fewer than a third are visited by their families. But two-thirds of them have children.

''Prison destroys families,'' Mr. Millan said matter of factly. ''I can't tuck my children in bed at night. I can't be there to comfort them when they scrape their knees. I can't help them when they have problems at school. The damage done is irreparable.''

Mr. Millan is enrolled in an unusual 16-week program at Sing Sing that tries to teach convicts how to overcome the obstacles to parenting behind bars. The program is part classroom reading -- with selections from the great child psychologists Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Bruno Bettelheim -- and part family therapy with counselors to help bridge the gaps during visits or in writing letters home.

The program, and the special section of the visiting room, are the brainchild of Elizabeth Gaynes, executive director of the Osborne Association, a group based in New York that sponsors programs to aid prisoners and their families.

''We tell them prison walls certainly make it harder, but you can still be a parent,'' Ms. Gaynes said. ''We say prison can be an excuse for not taking your children to the library, but it is not an excuse for not teaching your children the value of reading.''

Among the lessons the program tries to impart, she said, are that prisoners should stay in touch with their children, that they should not make false promises about when they will be released, and that they should acknowledge the pain they have caused their children, who are also victims of their crimes.

The good news for the inmates, Ms. Gaynes said, is that while society ''will forever remember them for what they did on the worst day of their life, their children will not judge them for just this.''

In the past few years, as the number of inmates has exploded, a handful of other programs have been started to help incarcerated parents, but most have been for mothers.

Ms. Gaynes acknowledges that the impact on a child may be greater when the mother is locked up, because the mother is often a single parent and the child may be sent to a grandmother or foster home. But in sheer numbers, fathers pose a more serious problem. Because most inmates are men, in 93 percent of the cases in which a parent is behind bars, that parent is the father, the Justice Department said.

''People forget most of these men are someday going to be released,'' said Creasie Finney Hairston, dean of the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago. ''There is a growing body of research that shows maintaining family ties while in prison leads to lower rates of re-arrest for the fathers and makes a difference in the lives of their kids.''

Prisons, however, are in the business of punishment, and security is their primary concern. Helping inmates preserve family ties is at the bottom of the list.

Visits by wives and children are often viewed as a security threat by prison officials, or at least a nuisance, because they can be an opportunity to smuggle drugs or weapons and they consume guards' time.

For the families, visiting prisons, which often are in rural areas, can be time-consuming and costly, and when they finally arrive, they can be kept outside in the cold or rain for hours and then subjected to humiliating searches.

''A visit to a prison is a very emotionally difficult experience,'' Dean Hairston said. ''There isn't time or space for normal family arguments, and the kids tend to act out afterward, and the wives or girlfriends can be resentful.''

Juan Hernandez, an inmate at Sing Sing, says his 14-year-old son is angry at him for abandoning him, and his 16-year-old daughter is embarrassed and lies to her friends about where he is. Neither will write or visit.

''I don't know how to deal with it,'' said Mr. Hernandez, who had just begun the parenting class. ''It's impossible to be a good father from prison.''

One of the inmates' greatest fears, which they realize too late, is that their children may consciously or unconsciously imitate them. Gregory Frederick, a 52-year-old from Harlem who has been at Sing Sing for 10 years for murder, finds that his grandson ''thinks I'm some sort of countercultural hero.''

''When he comes to visit,'' Mr. Frederick said, ''he sees these guys walking around with big muscles, and then when he goes back home, he tells his friends, 'My grandfather is in prison,' and he's proud of it. In some communities, prison just has no stigma any more. It's a very distorted rite of passage.''

Children often imitate the behavior of those they are close to, said Angela Browne, a psychologist who is an expert on prisoners and their children. ''Unfortunately,'' Dr. Browne said, ''children imitate strong behavior, like anger and drug abuse, more than subtle behavior.''

The Children
Following Father, Right Into Prison

The impact on children can fall most heavily on blacks in poor city neighborhoods, where a disproportionate number of people go to prison, contributing to a concentration of fatherless families. But research has found that the parental prison influence on children affects all populations.

In the 1940's, two pioneering researchers at Harvard Law School, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, found that among boys sent to a reformatory from the Boston area, two-thirds had a father who had been incarcerated, and half had a grandfather who had been locked up.

Race was not an issue. All these boys were white.

Similar findings, that about half of incarcerated juveniles have a parent who has been locked up, have been reported wherever the issue has been studied: in London, Minneapolis or Sacramento, Calif.

The most recent research, conducted last year in California among 1,000 girls in detention in Los Angeles, San Diego, Alameda and Marin counties, revealed that 54 percent of their mothers and 46 percent of their fathers had been locked up.

Leslie Accoca, a senior researcher with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, who directed the study, said the real number of fathers who had served time was undoubtedly higher, but the girls knew less about them.

''Incarceration today is a family matter,'' Ms. Accoca said. ''There is an entire kinship system that is now moving through jail, prison, probation and parole.''

Corrections officials are sometimes stunned to find whole families locked up. At the Laurel Highlands state prison in Pennsylvania, a father and son, convicted of separate arsons, share the same cell.

At the Allegheny County Jail in Pittsburgh, a father, mother and their four sons and two daughters were all incarcerated for different bank robberies. In California, a daughter, her mother and her grandmother were in one women's prison for separate crimes.

The Visit
A Child's Treat, A Parent's Reward

Sareena Bain, all of 4 years old and dressed in a turquoise jumper, was waiting by the slam gate entrance to the Bexar County Detention Center, the San Antonio jail, for a new treat, a Saturday contact visit with her father, Bobby Bain, a convicted burglar.

A guard gently ordered Sareena to take off her shoes so they could be searched for drugs, then passed her through a metal detector. Nearby, civilian volunteers took off the diapers of a group of babies to check for contraband, replacing them with fresh, jail-issued diapers.

Inspection finished, the children were ushered into a special visitors room, the walls painted jungle green and emblazoned with a mural from ''The Lion King.'' Sareena scanned the large, unfamiliar men in orange jump suits in the room and then let out a whoop. ''Daddy,'' she said, and jumped into Mr. Bain's arms.

Mr. Bain and the other men had earned the right to a one-hour visit with their children by volunteering for an innovative program, Papas and their Children, in which 70 of the 3,200 inmates in the San Antonio jail live in the same pod and attend an hour of parenting classes five days a week.

Other inmates can talk to their visitors only by telephone through a glass wall.

The San Antonio program, and an equivalent one for mothers in the jail, are the best of their kind in the country, said Anna Laszlo, a criminologist in Washington who conducted a nationwide survey of programs for children of incarcerated parents for the Department of Health and Human Services.

In the visitors room, Derrick Hunt, a bear of a man convicted of drug possession, was bottle-feeding his month-old son, DiAnthony, in his arms. Unfortunately, the baby had picked this moment to take a nap. But Mr. Hunt was able to quiz his 5-year-old son, Derrick Jr., on his ABC's.

''I never really had a relationship with my children until I came to jail and took the classes,'' Mr. Hunt said. ''But I've learned how to control my anger and how to put my kids in timeout rather than shout at them.''

In the visitors room of the women's section of the jail, Mary Anne Garza was lying on the gray carpet with her three children tight around her: Edward, 7, Anna, 4, and Briana, 9 months. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Ms. Garza's brother is in prison for murder, her husband is in jail and she had now been convicted of auto theft.

Anna could not stop hugging her mother. ''She wants to come to jail with me,'' Ms. Garza said. ''She is so worried about what is happening to me, and she is scared of the police and the guards.''

Not long before, there was an automobile accident near her mother's house, where the children are staying. When the police came, Anna said: ''Don't go outside. The police will take you away and there won't be any more moms.''

Ms. Perez, the social worker who created the San Antonio, program for the sheriff's department said, ''From a management point of view, it has been a success because it has been so popular it has changed jail culture.''

The inmates who take part in it have never tried to smuggle in drugs, they openly express their emotions and there are no racial cliques or fights in the pods where they live.

''They are just parents, not brown, black or white,'' Ms. Perez said.

The inmates may actually be better parents in jail than before they were locked up, Ms. Perez said.

''Most of them are addicted,'' she said, ''and when they are out there, the drug is the No. 1 thing to them. But once in here, they have to be clean, they are able to think clearly and they learn now important parents are to their children.''

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