Barriers to Parenthood Behind Bars
June 17, 2021
One of my proudest moments as a father occurred three days ago when my youngest son graduated from high school with honors. When I was incarcerated in 2008, he was just four years old. At the time, the gravity of my prison sentence had yet to take root. I didn't know that I would be behind bars when he started his first day of school; or even worse, that I'd still be here 13 years later when he graduated. I was never able to take him to school or pick him up, attend PTA meetings, help him with his homework or projects, show up to his plays, talent shows, music events or sports games, or do anything that normal students do with their parents. Throughout the years, I always worried that my absence would eventually begin hindering his academic performance, but by the grace of God, it never did. I'd like to believe this is because, despite my physical absence, I remained in constant communication with my son through phone calls, letters and emails, and did my best to be there for him in every capacity that I could be. But I'm also aware that despite my efforts, the fact remains that my son got lucky. Statistically, the odds are against children of incarcerated parents excelling through school. He was an exception to the rule.
Trying to have an instrumental role in your children's education from behind bars is unimaginably difficult due to the many barriers that being incarcerated present. For example, prison schedules are highly unpredictable, making it next to impossible to make plans to call our children on specific dates or at specific times. We never know when we'll be locked down and unable to use the phones, or when the phones will be turned off "for security purposes." Add this to the fact that there are usually no more than 6-8 phones in housing units with around 80 offenders, and you can see that even when we are allowed to use the phones, we still may not be able to because there aren't enough of them. Even the most committed parents may be forced to spend days without getting an opportunity to call their children.
Another major barrier to our communication with our children is the relatively high cost. Although phone rates have gotten lower in recent years - from around $7 dollars per call to only .85 cents per call - this is still out of reach for a lot of offenders. Trustee jobs only pay .27 to .45 cents per hour, which equals about $32 to $54 dollars per month. Trying to stretch that between paying for phone calls, hygiene, food, and other needs such as clothes or fees for court costs (copies, filing fees, postage, etc.) is no easy feat. A lot of times, if we want to put more money toward the phone, it means sacrificing those other living expenses. Same goes for the costs of emails and postage stamps. A lot of incarcerated parents simply can't afford to have frequent communication with their children. [This is all assuming the parent even has a job. At most institutions, only about a third of offenders are employed.] When we're taken from society, we are effectively taken from our children's lives. They become innocent casualties of our incarceration, while corrections departments take a "not my problem" stance on the matter. There are no programs or provisions in prison to help us maintain our parental roles. Parenting from behind bars is something that's left up to us to figure out and try to do the best way we can.
Thankfully, I wasn't hindered by a lot of those barriers that limit incarcerated parents' communication with their children. Thankfully, I've always been able to find institutional jobs so I could afford to call, email and write my son, and I've never had to sacrifice my daily essentials to pay for it because I also receive financial support from my family. Thankfully, my son's mother and I have a good relationship and I've never been housed at an institution that was too far away for my her to bring him to visit me. I'm thankful that my circumstances allowed me to continue being a parent in prison and having a positive influence on my son's education. But I'm also aware that those circumstances - most of which are beyond my control - could've been different, and instead of my son being an honors graduate who's about to start college this fall, he could've been one of the large percentage of children psychologically and academically impacted by their parent's incarceration. As happy as I am for him, I find it disheartening that his scholastic achievement, as it relates to my incarceration, is a statistical anomaly. The "rule" should not be that children of incarcerated parents are expected to underperform in school. I've never heard of any correctional initiatives to address this issue, but there is a need for it. Our children should not have to suffer, psychologically, academically or otherwise, for our mistakes.