Strengthening Inmate-Family Relationships: Programs That Work

By Adalist-Estrin, Ann | Corrections Today, December 1995 | Go to article overview

Strengthening Inmate-Family Relationships: Programs That Work


Adalist-Estrin, Ann, Corrections Today


There are at least 1.5 million children in the United States who have a parent in jail or prison (Johnston 1995). Children of incarcerated parents experience loss and trauma. This often causes or contributes to physical, social and emotional problems, including failure in school and delinquency.

Incarcerated parents themselves are likely to have long histories of trauma. They often have limited coping skills and find it difficult to maintain relationships. A prison sentence does nothing to improve their relationship skills, teach coping strategies or foster family functioning. Instead, incarceration creates estrangement. Even when families visit the incarcerated, the atmosphere is tense. Inmates often are uncomfortable or silent during visits with their families (Adalist-Estrin 1993). They feel that their lives are filled with unimportant details of prison life that will bore or frighten their children.

Their children face similar problems. "Children sometimes feel guilty sharing normal everyday events and activities with an incarcerated parent. They ask questions like 'Won't morn feel really bad that she wasn't at my game?' or 'Maybe Dad will get so worried about my grades that he'll get into trouble in there'" (FCN 1995). Relationships often are put on hold, with a lot of polite, "Hello, how are you's." Says one inmate in Canada, "No one wants to deal with painful and difficult issues" (Adalist-Estrin 1994).

Even the post-parole period is filled with tension between parolees and their families. When relationships have not been maintained, everyone is left to rebuild the family, which leads to unspoken anger and resentment. This repressed hostility, combined with financial worries and a shift in roles and responsibilities, can exacerbate an already difficult situation, particularly for families who have been "holding in" their emotions for a long time.

Over the past decade, many researchers and practitioners in the fields of corrections, criminal justice and family support have looked to design and build programs that will hold families together in an effort to decrease recidivism and combat the ever-increasing intergenerational patterns of criminality. In 1989, there were more than 100 such programs in 39 states with still others in Canada and abroad.

Lessons learned tell us that family resource programs can provide information, support and counseling to inmates and family members as well as training to community agencies and corrections staff. Although correctional family programs vary, programs that work share some common characteristics:

* Inmates and their children have the chance to develop and/or strengthen attachments to each other by maintaining family ties.

* Inmates have access to a continuum of family support services from the time of sentencing through parole.

* Visits are structured to maximize family time, while preserving security and protecting staff. When seen as essential to developing and maintaining attachments, visits offer everyone an opportunity to be part of a family.

* Inmates learn about and practice parenting skills. Parenting classes alone, without visits and/or support and discussion groups, are not enough to prepare inmates for life on the outside.

* Curricula and programs are developed with content relevant to the offender population and to specific cultural and ethnic norms. When family support programs seem irrelevant to participants, they are ineffective and will contribute to a cycle of failure for inmates and their families (Adalist-Estrin 1994).

* Correctional staff are involved or consulted in planning programs for inmates. Family support programs also are available to corrections staff, giving them an opportunity to discuss their own parenting concerns.

* Because inmate parents are likely to be released to resume their parenting roles in the community, family support programs must be seen as essential components of release preparation and not criticized as rewarding criminal behavior. …

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