Criminal justice reform can take many forms and include a range of policies: Raising the Age, sentencing and bail reform, revisiting solitary confinement, or increasing alternatives to incarceration, as in the new Stabilization Center in Dutchess County. It can also be something as seemingly small as allowing an incarcerated parent to touch, hug and kiss their child.
Typically, contact visits between incarcerated parents and their children might include a hug and kiss at the beginning of the visit, but then the rest of their time together is spent on opposites of a barrier. The Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood (GHPN), in partnership with the Osborne Association’s NY Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents, has developed a pilot program with the Columbia County Jail to allow incarcerated parents who are in good standing with the jail expanded bonding visits with their children with no barrier between them. This program is designed to help maintain the family connection during a traumatic time, alleviate the stress and anxiety a child may feel while their parent is incarcerated and reduce recidivism. Since these enhanced bonding visits with family are not open to every incarcerated parent – there is a screening process done by the jail administration – it incentivizes good behavior and creates a positive atmosphere inside the facility.
When a person is incarcerated it is easy to say “lock them up and throw away the key.” But when a person has children, that thinking ignores the trauma that incarceration, including the arrest and trial, has on an innocent child. Mom or Dad is still Mom or Dad to a child whether their parent is in jail or at home and those familial bonds remain vital. The mental and emotional well-being of children is severely impacted by the abrupt removal – sometimes in front of the child – and absence of a parent, as well as the stress and stigma associated with having a parent in jail. Because of this, the GHPN program includes more than just visits.
The GHPN, based on the Harlem Children’s Zone, utilizes a cradle to career model in the services it provides to Hudson City School District students, and layered within that model is the Initiative for Children of Incarcerated Parents. In addition to the jail visits, the program focuses on education and outreach; data collection which allows them to accurately analyze the impacts on this vulnerable population; advocacy for the rights of children of incarcerated parents; and mentorship programs.
This initiative is the result of a remarkable partnership. It took a local organization to notice and advocate for a hidden population and a county corrections system willing to be open-minded. Corrections officers had to be trained, a new space in the visiting room developed and trust established between the GHPN, Columbia County Jail, the CO’s, incarcerated parents and children. That may seem like a lot, but the impacts and results have been life-changing. While this initiative is currently only at the Columbia County Jail, I believe the model can and should be replicated across the state. If we are committed to breaking the cycle of incarceration and ending the enormous social, emotional and financial toll it takes on our communities, we must think “outside the box” and look to efforts like this innovative and compassionate program.