November 05, 2003 - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)

Agencies Keep Kids in Touch with Relatives in Prison

By Jim McKinnon, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The night before visiting day, Anna Thomas said, she and her grandchildren all are a bundle of nerves, unable to sleep because of the anticipation of visiting her sons -- the children's uncle and father -- both inmates in prisons in Pennsylvania.

"The night before, we're up all night long. You're excited and happy because you're going. Then you get on the bus and you're knocked out," Thomas said this week.

For Thomas, it is of utmost importance for her sons, Alonzo Harris and William Thomas, to see their relatives while they are in jail. Otherwise, she said, her boys may not know them -- and vice versa -- if and when they get out of prison.

In recent years, government and private agencies also have pointed to the need to help maintain family connections for the millions of children in the country whose parents are incarcerated.

About 10 percent of all minor children in the United States -- about 7.3 million youths -- have at least one parent who is incarcerated or is under court supervision such as on probation or parole, according to a policy brief released last week by the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

Those children face a variety of social and developmental problems that also can have an impact on society through the need for social services.

The report echoes findings in a study done by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections Information Center in Longmont, Colo.

"The immediate effects can include feelings of shame, social stigma, loss of financial support, weakened ties to the parent, changes in family composition, poor school performance, increased delinquency, and increased risk of abuse or neglect," said the Urban Institute brief, titled, "Families Left Behind: The Hidden Costs of Incarceration and Re-entry."

An added complication for families is that prisoners are housed in facilities that are an average distance of more than 100 miles from their families. Getting to see each other becomes a major obstacle for those children who are permitted, or desire, to visit their jailed parents.

About 1,500 people a year -- financially strapped relatives in the Pittsburgh region -- have found a way around the logistical obstacle, said Mary McCue, a program coordinator for Families Outside, a program of the Family Service Center in East Liberty.

Affordable bus transportation for these families to visit their relatives is the most popular service provided by Families Outside, McCue said.

Round-trip fare to any institution within 40 miles of Pittsburgh costs $10 a seat. Any farther travel to jails in the tri-state region costs $20 round-trip, McCue said.

"People are put away so far from their families," McCue said. "You have people who may be put away for only a couple of years and they will be back in the family. But, to put them so far away, there's no way to maintain a family relationship," without helping those who can't afford to make their own way for visits, she said.

The Urban Institute reported that children, feeling the void of an imprisoned parent or family member, often succumb to developmental problems.

The study reported that:

By age 2, children who have been left behind as infants become completely dependent on substitute caregivers and rarely ever bond with their parent.

By age 6, that child may become more independent, but displays socio-emotional impairment, traumatic stress reactions and "survivor guilt."

Between ages 7 and 10, a child shows less ability to overcome future emotional trauma.

An 11-to 14-year-old child may become increasingly aggressive and react inappropriately to limits on behavior.

Minors between ages 15 and 18 can be confused by the emotional crisis in which they find themselves. Too often, the study said, this condition leads that child to crime and incarceration.

The Urban Institute cited other studies that show good results when prisoners who have maintained contact with relatives while incarcerated return to their families. Inmates who got regular visits usually got involved in programs in prison that provided treatment for drug abuse. After these prisoners were released, the incidence of physical abuse toward loved ones was minimized, the study said.

Thomas said that her family was devastated 15 years ago when her son, Alonzo Harris, 35, was convicted and sentenced to life in a state prison in Erie County. Following Alonzo's conviction for murder, his girlfriend gave birth to a daughter that Alonzo has yet to meet.

In subsequent years, his younger brother, William Thomas, 25, became increasingly unruly. The boys were tight. Alonzo is the second oldest of Anna's five children. William is the youngest.

Anna Thomas said she believes that William, who had worshipped his older brother, was lost to other rowdy youths in their Hill District neighborhood in the absence of Alonzo.

None of her other children, an older son and two daughters, has ever been in trouble with the law.

So, on visiting day, which comes about twice a month for Thomas, she gathers as many of her grandchildren as are available, hosts a sleepover, and takes them with her on the bus to visit her sons.

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections has a number of programs designed to keep incarcerated parents connected with their children. Inmates are encouraged to write letters to those children whose caregivers on the outside refuse to allow the youngsters to visit. Some inmates are permitted to record themselves, on audio or video, reading a book, with the tape then being delivered to their children.

The preferred deterrent to the cycle of crime and incarceration, however, is face-to-face meeting, McCue said.

She said that too few families know about the bus service provided by Families Outside.

"It's really rewarding and beneficial to see what comes out of a bus ride, which is something small," McCue said. "From [the families'] point of view, we're keeping the family together which is really worth while."

Families Outside has other programs for families and their imprisoned relatives, including help with readjusting to outside life after the prisoner is released.

For more information, call 412-661-1670.

Jim McKinnon can be reached at or 412-263-1939.

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