Building Families Behind Prison Walls

By Leon Fooksman

Behind walls of barbed wires and steel doors, under watch of guards and security cameras, a 3-year-old girl is getting to know her imprisoned father.

J.K. is hugged and kissed by her father, Lewis King, 39, in the visitors room of his prison on the tip of Lake Okeechobee in Florida, where he is serving a three-year sentence.

It was the first time in months J.K. and her mother, LaToya Jackson, visited King at Okeechobee Correctional Institute, a trip made possible by The Service Network For Children of Inmates, a coalition of Miami agencies that connects children with their imprisoned parents.

“It feels good to see them,” King said. “My kid is like three and it’s just good to see her face. You want to help them, but how can you in here? And that’s what’s so rough on a man. The best I can do is see them whenever possible.”

A few days before Christmas, close to 150 children and their caregivers from Miami visited their mothers and fathers in six prisons across Florida. They are among the more than 15,000 children of inmates in Miami-Dade County - a growing, largely invisible population known to suffer from delinquency, antisocial behavior, and emotional stress attributed to separation from their parents.

The Service Network For Children of Inmates along with Florida Department of Corrections and The Children’s Trust of Miami-Dade organized the visits as part of a three-year-old initiative to help 500 children of incarcerated parents establish meaningful and lasting ties with their mothers and fathers.

During the three to four hour visits, the families sat around tables and read books, put together puzzles, did arts-and-crafts projects, and played board games - activities that encouraged conversations, laughter, and hugs to nurture relationships. Prison wardens walked the rooms, introducing themselves and giving children stockings filled with small toys and candy. Everyone ate pizza and chicken wings or made cold cuts sandwiches with vegetables.

Before long, for many children, the power of family blurred the surroundings: parents wearing blue jumpsuits, strangers talking in unfamiliar languages, tall fences glistening in the afternoon sun.

After the visits, the children found stuffed animals awaiting them on the buses. Rather than going straight home, they went to bowling alleys, amusement parks and other entertainment centers. These were ways to ease anxieties from separating again from their incarcerated parents and to build community ties with others in their situations, said Shellie Solomon, program director of Service Network For Children of Inmates.

"My children are my lifeline, and without this program, I don't know what I'd do,” said Lutrische Dancy, 47, whose two daughters, 18 and 20, visited her at Broward Correctional Institute outside of Fort Lauderdale, where she is serving a 45-year sentence.

“They have their own lives, their own problems, and it's hard for them to really understand life in here. It's hard for me to reach them. It's hard for them to contact me, and that causes a lot of problems. That's why this group is so important.”

At Okeechobee Correctional Institute, Mary Marshall, 73, who brought five of her grandchildren to visit their father, James, offered the same sentiment.

“The biggest thing about this program is that you get him to know that he’s not alone, that he’s got these kids out there,” Marshall said, whose son is serving a 40-year sentence. “It’s tough for the kids. They feel hostility. They feel anger. They don’t understand why their father is not with them. He’s told me he loves these kids. He wants to be a father to them and that’s not any jailhouse religion.”

The prison visits make a difference, according to interviews with dozens of prisoners and their families and data from organizers and researchers. Consistent contact between children and their incarcerated parents is known to reduce the pain of separation, lower recidivism, and sustain families upon reunification.

A much-cited 1972 study of California prisoners found that those who had regular visits were six times less likely to reenter prison during the first year out of incarceration than those who had no visits, according to Norman Holt and Donald Miller of the California Department of Corrections.

“When we started the trips, a lot of the children never spoke and completely shut down,” said Rev. Linda Freeman, executive director of Peacemakers Family Service Center at Trinity Church in North Miami. “Now, they are more like kids. They laugh, they talk, they have a good time. We believe there's a good chance that these kids can lead successful lives, have careers, have families, and leave legacies for themselves."

On a chilly morning, the first day of the recent prison visits, Freeman gave a chartered busload of sleepy children and their caregivers a prayer before departing for Marion and Lowell correctional institutes in Ocala, just outside of Orlando. "As we head out Lord, give us a new beginning," Freeman said.

For much of the four-hour drive, the children sat quietly munching on Oreos and Sun Chips and watching movies on the TV system. But once they pulled up to the rolling hills of the prisons, their eyes widened and bodies tensed. Ahead of them were guard towers, razor wires and vast fields of turned-over earth being prepared for the prisons’ expansion. At Lowell, a prison for 2,850 women, a crush of prisoners waited by the visitor center doors for the first glimpses of their children.

“I’m nervous and excited,” said Leslie Swab, 36, who is serving a 15-month sentence, just as her 11- and 12-year-old son and daughter ran into her arms. She held them tight, tears streaming down her face. “I love you so much,” she said.

As the room filled with conversation, Swab played UNO with her kids who laughed and repeatedly hugged her. She speaks with them on the phone every day, but she said the face-to-face visit filled her with “excitement and exhilaration and the sense that I can make it through all of this.”

Looking on, Lowell Warden Chris Southerland said she hopes the women will draw inspiration from the visit.

“This gives them something to look forward to. They connect with their families. That’s a huge positive,” she said.


Leon Fooksman is a journalist who writes for Service Network For Children of Inmates. He can be reached at leon@astorytellingcompany.com

** The Service Network of Children of Inmates has commissioned journalists to research and write articles pertaining to issues facing children of the incarcerated.