|The children of our growing population of prison inmates are the hidden victims of their parents’ crimes.
It was a beautiful Sunday morning, and we stopped for breakfast before making the drive to New York’s Attica State Prison. The two of us talked about what it’s like to visit dad—this child of 8 was an old hand at this. My God, I thought to myself, I never dreamed I’d be taking one of my students to prison to visit her father. But I needed to learn and try to understand. The child was excited that her principal was taking her out for the day. The principal had mixed emotions: pleasure that the trip evoked a positive response, but anger that any child should ever have to make it.
I had never been to Attica Prison. As we rounded the bend, the building towered before us like a castle, and I fleetingly felt as though we had been whisked back in time to an era of kings, knights, and fair maidens. Reality quickly set in, however, as a van took us to the processing center. I was appalled by what this sweet child had to hear and see, amid a chilling conglomeration of people speaking crude conversations. They were discussing lawyers, arson, and prison time—I wanted to grab her and run.
Once checked in, we were given a number, called, and then driven to the main gate, where we were processed through a metal detector. A barred gate opened, we stepped in, and it closed behind us. The next gate opened, and this waif of a child and I walked through to the building housing the visiting area. On the way, she blurted out, almost as if showing me a piece of family property, “There’s the trailer we stay at when we visit my dad on the weekend.”
The room in the visiting area was not at all what I expected. Its walls were beautifully painted with a collection of Disney characters, the creation of two of the prisoners. One whole wall was lined with vending machines and microwaves, as visitors were not permitted to bring in food and other items. One corner of the room housed a play area for children, with tables and toys. In another, an inmate was taking Polaroid pictures of other inmates with their guests. The room was filled with about 50 tables, at which inmates sat with their families and friends. You knew the prisoners not only by their green-colored pants, but also by their assigned seats facing the guards.
A guard assigned us a table, and we waited. Inmates entered the room one by one. Finally, the door opened, and my pupil’s father came out. The look on her face was one of total, unconditional love. He barely had time to sit down before she climbed into his lap. And for the next three hours, their interaction touched my heart. She noticed every detail of his face. “Dad, did you see my new hair style?” she asked. And to me, showing just how much she knew for only 8 years in age, she said, “Ms. M., did you know that Mark Chapman was here?” Her father pointed to the jail cell of John Lennon’s assassin. “My mom loves the Beatles.” She knew so much—out of the mouths of babes?
There is an increased statistical likelihood of criminal behavior among the children of prisoners.
The more we talked, the more I could feel this father’s genuine concern for his child. There was no pity in his voice, just a desire to do what he had to until his release, and then to be the father he hadn’t been able to be. Parents, I realized, play an important role, regardless. We talked of what I might be able to do as an administrator to help him and his child bridge the separate lives they are living, at least in relation to her education. I suggested parent-teacher conferences via telephone, sending schoolwork to him, providing information about classroom activities, and family visits—even if his little girl had to miss a few days of school. And anything else, I thought, that we can do to keep this child from becoming a statistic.
At the end of the visit, our hesitating embrace was a symbol of the unity we had established. The father handed me a slip of paper to give the guard. The guard handed me an envelope. To my surprise, it enclosed the father’s handcrafted token of appreciation, a beautiful card. “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart,” it read. I walked out feeling much different from when I walked in.
Facts carry a heavy burden: The children of our growing population of prison inmates are the hidden victims of their parents’ crimes—and they represent yet another problem placed on the plate of educators, as well as the society as a whole. Federal statistics show that in 1999, an estimated 721,500 state and federal prisoners were the parents of some 1,498,800 children under the age of 18. Parental incarceration forces thousands of children each year to endure traumatic separations and family dislocations. As a group, these children are much less likely than their peers to succeed in school.
Intervention to prevent delinquency and criminal behavior needs to begin at a very young age, according to experts. Dr. Howard Spivak, the chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ task force on violence, has found that 68 percent of chronic offenders may be identifiable in kindergarten. There is an increased statistical likelihood of criminal behavior among the children of prisoners. One study puts the odds that children with imprisoned parents will themselves one day be incarcerated at almost six times that of other children.
Support services for these children and greater awareness of their plight would seem to be imperative if we are going to break the cycle of negative social behavior and involvement in crime.
For our children’s sake, the moral and ethical issues that surround the prison system may be less relevant than the care we take to ensure their futures. What is important to them is how we each—individually and collectively, as educators and as citizens—choose to make a difference, “one child at a time.”
Cynthia Martone is a school administrator with the Greece Central School District in Rochester, N.Y., and can be reached at email@example.com.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as A Home Visit to Attica