Incarcerated Families

The issue here is not that the inmates didn't deserve punishment. To the contrary, each inmate was guilty of his crime(s) and was rightly required to serve his sentence. At issue, however, is the need to revisit the way we do incarceration; to do so in an ethical way by proffering policy changes that pose minimal security risk, but provide maximum benefit to inmates, their children, and society-at-large.

Such "family friendly" policies might include promoting increased research that examines the relationship dynamics between incarcerated parents and their families. The majority of incarcerated fathers (men constitute roughly 90 percent of incarcerated parents) were already absent fathers at the time of their incarceration. Thus, to the degree that the father's absence impedes a relationship with his children, incarceration further hinders that relationship. Yet, for example, pilot programs utilizing enhanced family visitation programs to strengthen parental bonds between father and child suggest, in the words of social scientists Elizabeth Dunn and J. Gordon Arbuckle, the possibility of "a model for reaching and improving the lives of at least some of the large number of children affected throughout . . . the country."

Creasy Finney Hairston, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, contends that the commitment shown by prisoners and their families to maintain familial bonds, "and the nation's general interest in protecting children and strengthening families provide sound reasons for policymakers to adopt policies and establish programs that will help prisoners maintain family responsibilities."

In sum, then, the needs of criminal offenders and their families are linked with those of society as a whole. Concerns about the safety of the citizenry must be balanced against the needs of the inmates (roughly 96 percent of whom will return to society) and their at-risk children (many of whom are in the pipeline to prison). Thus, to create policies without considering adequately their impact on a volatile, critical mass of the population is simply ludicrous. The effect is to contribute more to the problem than to the solution.

2/25/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Samuel Atchison
    About Samuel Atchison
    Rev. Samuel K. Atchison has served as a welfare policy analyst, social services administrator, social policy consultant, and prison chaplain. He is the president of the Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry (TEAM), which serves as a coordinating agency for the community outreach efforts of churches in Mercer County, New Jersey. He is also a community partnership manager with the Amachi Mentoring Coalition Project (AMCP), a program of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation that provides mentoring to children impacted by incarceration.
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