For many faiths and traditions, the winter holidays are rooted in stories about miracles that generate hope and something to hold on to during the darkest of days. Nowadays, for the average family, the idea of holiday miracles can get lost among long wish-lists for toys and material items. Even so, it is often clear that beneath the commercialism of Santa or gift-giving, for many, the winter holidays are about coming together with family (both chosen and biological) and loved ones. But for families where a parent or both parents are incarcerated, the simplicity of coming together would require an actual holiday miracle to unfold.
This is so for 8-year old Darina, whose holiday wish looks much different than most kids her age. With a dad in prison over 2,000 miles away, her wish is for him to “move closer, so [they] could just drive” to see him. The wish for her father’s transfer from a federal prison in Texas to one in Oregon shouldn’t arise to a miracle, but it does. Darina can’t even think of the ultimate miracle— having her dad come home. At her young age, she understands that absent any changes in the law, he has 10 more years to serve, and she must wait until she is 18 for him to come home. Due to distance, Darina has only been able to see her father once in the past 3 years. After a long plane and car ride, she had only one hour of viewing him through plexi-glass and hearing his voice through a phone as most federal facilities do not allow “contact” face-to-face visits.
In an effort to bring her dad home, Darina and her family made a video which chronicles the barrier that distance creates for families with a loved one in prison. When talking about the importance of keeping Darina in contact with her father through letters and phone calls, Darina’s Aunt, Dana, points out, “to buy the time on the phone is very expensive. A lot of these families can’t afford this.” Dana reminds us that things move really fast on the phone, especially for an eight-year-old, “it’s not a lot of time to get to know your kid. But it’s the only way they can communicate. The calls are just two to three minutes long, and then we’re disconnected.” Dana points out the inconsistencies of a system calling for re-entry, yet creating consistent institutional barriers for maintaining contact: “when they release these fathers and mothers out of these prisons, they expect them to have these relationships with their children, and they don’t even know each other.”
The time spent away missing moments of childhood can’t be recaptured, and these missed experiences may be crucial for a child’s well-being and development. Prison visitation programs are just a Band-Aid solution for the deep wound that is caused by parental incarceration. Sporadic visits, long distances to travel, ill-equipped prisons and inadequately trained prison staff are just a few of the difficulties that perpetuate the trauma visited on our children. Darina’s mom, Gina, indicates that “She had some medical stuff where she had to have a heart monitor for a little while and testing to find out if there was anything wrong with her. And after all the reports and readings of the monitor during this time, everything was normal medically, but emotionally she has a broken heart.” Support for family-friendly visits and opportunities for consistent in-person contact can help lessen the negative impact on families and children, but nothing beats having a parent home in the community.
Stories like Darina’s remind us that when finding solutions, we must prioritize the needs of children and their families while improving public safety. Advancing family unity for all, enhances public safety for everyone. Our children should not bear the burden of our country’s tough on crime policies, and whether it be at the state or federal level, our children should be considered by the judiciary and our lawmakers. As we reflect on President Obama’s call to overhaul sentencing laws, as well as the 2014 directive of the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (paragraph 20(c)) to the United States government to consider parental diversion, here are four easy steps to ensure families are not left out. First, at pre-sentencing, the judge should be required to inquire whether the person is a parent. Second, if the individual is a parent, then the judge should be required to hear and consider — through the means of a Family Impact Statement — what the impact of incarcerating that parent will be on their children. Third, at sentencing, a judge should have options to sentence a parent to an alternative to prison which is likely to promote family unity (i.e. probation; education or job training programs; housing support; social, and psychotherapeutic supports; and medical supports including drug treatment). And last, but not least, any changes to our sentencing laws should also have a Family Impact Statement addressing the impact that any new laws or policies will have on children of incarcerated parents and their families. It may take more than a holiday miracle, but we can do better.