When Courtney Saunders was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for drug possession, everything in her life seemed to be falling apart. But perhaps the most agonizing aspect was that she would be separated from her daughters, then 4 and 2.
“Visits in jail took place behind plexiglass windows, no physical contact,” said Ms. Saunders. “I worried this would traumatize my daughters if they saw me like that. If we were given the chance to have a more child-friendly visit, that would have meant so much to the mothers there — it would have helped us hold onto some hope,” she said.
After serving six months at Bristol County Jail and House of Correction in North Dartmouth, Mass., in 2015, she was able to convince the judge to send her to a mandated treatment program where she was able to call her children daily. “Even if it was only for five minutes, I always called. It helped me be part of their day and stay connected.”
Ms. Saunders, now 30, was able to get sober and has since reunited with her girls.
Currently, over 200,000 women are imprisoned in the United States, the majority for nonviolent drug or property offenses, which have recently skyrocketed in connection with the opioid crisis. The number of children in foster care or living with relatives has soared as well.
According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research organization, women are the country’s fastest-growing prison population, and 80 percent of them are mothers. The overwhelming majority were the primary caregivers of their children.
The opportunity for an incarcerated mother to see her children can vary greatly by state, correctional facility and who has custody.
Prison visits are typically not recommended for parents who have committed certain violent crimes or abused their children; experts say there is a strong chance such visits will cause further trauma. But when family visits are appropriate, studies show that implementing them in a child-friendly way helps maintain the familial connection, potentially mitigates some of the separation trauma for both parent and child and reduces recidivism.
In many states, children in foster care have mandated visits with incarcerated parents, facilitated through state agencies. But when children with incarcerated mothers are cared for by family members, two-thirds of those caregivers struggle with poverty and often have trouble arranging to travel for visits — especially if the mother is in prison in another state.
Even when the children go to see their mothers, the settings for the visits do little to encourage parent-child bonding. Many jails prohibit physical contact, and visits take place through a plexiglass window, which can make children anxious.
“It’s very unnatural for a young child to not have close physical contact with their caregiver,” said Angela Tomlin, a psychologist and professor of clinical pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine. “And if they’re in a situation where they can’t hold them, touch them, brush their hair, do whatever they want to do that promotes connection, it’s going to feel very unusual and odd to the child.”
In an attempt to limit the damage to these familial relationships, there are some efforts like Still She Rises in North Tulsa, Okla., which bills itself as “the first public defender office in the country dedicated exclusively to the representation of mothers in the criminal justice system.”
And a few states have begun creating child-friendly visitation programs. In April, a pilot program began in New York City that coordinates visits at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, where mothers incarcerated at Rikers Island and their children spend time together when the museum is closed to the public.
New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray, spearheaded the program after seeing first hand how difficult it was for parents and children to connect during prison visits.
“It’s a necessity for the whole family’s well-being that mothers have quality time and meaningful connection with their children while they are behind bars,” Ms. McCray said. “That’s why we prioritized making these off-site visits possible. Quality time together in a positive setting, creating art, listening to music and dancing gives children opportunities to express themselves, strengthening the bonds that keep children whole and families together,” she said.
Andrew Ackerman, the museum’s executive director, said activities like weaving, collage and journal making as well as music and a shared meal help families connect in a healing, art-based environment.
“The museum is committed to serving families most in distress, and using the arts to help families bond and heal,” he said.
But most correctional facilities haven’t adopted child-friendly programs. In fact, some prisons are ending in-person visits, opting for video chats only.
Visitation rules also vary significantly by state. Most New York facilities allow daily visits, whereas North Carolina permits visits once a week, and Arizona requires visitors to pay background check fees (exemptions include children under 18 and court-appointed guardians of the minor who is visiting).
Being able to have in-person visits is valuable for both the child and the mother. Meghann Perry, a mother who spent time in prison off and on during the first 10 years of her daughter’s life, credits her recovery to a period when they were able to have personal visits.
Ms. Perry’s daughter was just 7 months old when she was arrested in Maine in 2002 after testing positive for methadone during a court ordered check-in following an earlier drug charge.
A doctor had prescribed methadone as a treatment to help wean her off heroin. But Neal Pratt, the lawyer who represented her at the time of her arrest in 2002, said that in drug treatment courts in Cumberland County, where she was charged, “methadone was not recognized as a real treatment, and at that time they didn’t differentiate between methadone and other opiates” — even for a recovering addict taking it under medical supervision. (Although federal guidelines now advise recognizing methadone as a drug treatment, many state drug courts, including those in Maine, allow methadone only on a case-by-case basis.)
Ms. Perry, now 45, spent the next few years bouncing in and out of jail and treatment. When her daughter was 4 she relapsed and lost custody. Her daughter initially lived with a foster parent until Ms. Perry’s mother assumed custody.
“When I was incarcerated, I wanted to keep in touch with her — she was all I had,” Ms. Perry recalled. She said she lived for the mail — sending letters and pictures to her daughter. The days she received letters back or they spoke on the phone inspired her to keep fighting. “Even after I lost absolutely everything, I never gave up believing that someday I would get to be her mother again.”
Holidays and birthdays were particularly excruciating. “I missed so many,” Ms. Perry said. “I’d think about my family gathering and laughing together, and I’d feel so profoundly alone.”
When Ms. Perry entered what would be her last inpatient program in Bangor, Me., in 2009, she was finally able to have regular visits.
“I was there nine months,” Ms. Perry said. “My daughter came several weekends and holidays. It was amazing. My time there was an incredibly important step in my recovery and my relationship with her.”
Ms. Perry, now a certified addiction recovery coach in Boston, who works with individuals seeking to initiate or strengthen their recovery, acknowledges that her story has a different ending than many others.
She said she was fortunate to have family support, whereas many women are stuck in the jail/rehab cycle and may permanently lose custody of their children, especially while serving a lengthy prison sentence.
“After almost six years apart, when my daughter was 10, I regained custody. At first, it was like starting from scratch, learning to parent again,” Ms. Perry said. “But I was so thankful to have her back.”