Warden Ralph Logan, a man the inmates used to call Idi Amin for his stern attitude, had an epiphany one day while entering the Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover, Maryland.
He saw a little five or six year old girl wearing a beautiful Sunday-best pink dress, obviously there to visit her incarcerated father. As she stepped up to go through the metal detector Logan watched as she automatically reached up to take off the religious medals hanging around her neck.
"I thought to myself this little thing knows how to clear a metal detector!! What are we doing when our babies know this -- and do it without even being prompted!?" Right then and there Logan told himself things had to change to make real rehabilitation work.
In prisons across the country as many as 75% of the inmates are parents. Some won't admit it. Men fear their failure to have paid child support will add time to their sentences, women fear the welfare system will take away their kids -- forever. So estimates of how many kids they left behind vary tremendously, from two to 10 million American children.
Imagine, millions of kids growing up with the stigma of a criminal parent. Study after study reports these kids are often profoundly affected. They suffer from combinations of shame, anxiety, fear, sadness, low self-esteem or aggressive behavior. Their grades often suffer, they can become anti-social, join gangs and many turn to drugs or alcohol. The number is in dispute but various reports conclude these children are seven to 10 times more likely than other kids to enter the criminal justice system themselves.
A weekend for most youngsters means sports or cheerleader practice or going to the movies. But for these kids it all too often means getting on a bus or cramming into a car along with others to visit a parent in prison. The worst part is -- they think it's normal.
Back before the events of September 11, 2001 rocked our nation Warden Logan teamed up with the Urban Family Institute to adopt a program called Salisbury's Promise. Logan and UFI founder, Kent Amos, believed in the program so deeply they cobbled together government and corporate funding to make it a reality. The college designed curriculum was intended to nurture the kids, to give them quality study and face time with their incarcerated parent. The program kit provided age appropriate interaction cards to guide both parent and child in reading, studying and social skills -- a different take-away card for every day so the lessons continued in between the one-on-one visits.
Logan says the misbehavior rate among participating inmates "went down to almost nothing" because they didn't want to be frozen out of this precious time with their children. And the prison itself was made more hospitable to visiting children and their mothers. Kids left with smiles on their faces instead of tears.
It was a program that truly made a difference and was practiced in at least 24 facilities nationwide. But funding dried up after 9-11.
The good news is that today programs like this are cropping up at prisons all over America helping both the criminal and the child see that the future is worth planning for. The Justice Department and The Girl Scouts of America initiated a mother-daughter visitation program called Beyond Bars that now operates in 37 prisons, servicing hundreds of young girls and their mothers. One chapter, in Ohio, takes girls to visit their incarcerated fathers too.
The Boy Scouts aren't so active but there's a troop in Gig Harbor, Washington that takes boys to visit their Moms at the women's prison there. Daughters also get visitation during what are, in effect, troop meetings behind bars.
The Peanut Butter and Jelly program in Albuquerque not only delivers children to see their incarcerated parents, they also offer the kids therapeutic counseling before and after the visit.
In New York the Osborn Association gets private donations to put kids and parents together even if it means flying children to far flung state prisons. Lutheran services in Pennsylvania set up video visitations so children can see their parents while talking to them on the phone.
These programs don't cost much money, many services are donated. It's all about thinking outside the box. They are win-win ideas. The child gets real life lessons in right and wrong while keeping the parental bond. The inmate learns discipline and the pleasure of accountability. Sometimes there are disappointments but these pairs often form a new union and goals for the future.
It's all about helping people step up to the plate and be responsible for their actions. Once they learn to do that maybe the generational revolving door at our prisons will slow down.