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The Parenting Prison

Today my youngest, Persistence, developed a new skill. She learned the fine art of the insult on top of injury.

She insisted on something verboten and my "nos" became more vehement, as did her insistence and protests. We stood there in the kitchen, arguing, each becoming more frustrated. Finally, she scrunched up her face and yelled, "BABYHEAD!" at me, and spit.

I deserved that. I was acting like a baby head. I was being immature. I was arguing with a two year old, who just hurled her latest, original insult at me, along with spitting, her new favorite injury.

Worse, I wasn't sure how to dig myself out of this sandtrap.

There are many times I feel trapped in a parenting situation like this. Moreover, there are times I feel trapped in parenting, in general.

A friend recently asked, "Do you ever check the available balance on your credit card and surf travel sites to see how far you can get with what you've got?"

I know what I have. I have $10,000. They just upped my limit. That card is wide open. I would have canceled it but my husband said it's good to keep it, keep up a good credit rating. Plus, it's my card, one I got back in college. So I feel pretty sure that it would be completely fair to use that card, and I feel certain I could get pretty far on $10,000, even these days. Maybe even to Antarctica.

Antarctica. I know. It seems fairly random, that. But I didn't pull it from thin air.

On the way home from a particularly grueling, frazzling, and exhausting grocery shopping trip with the two kids, I drove past a local travel agency whose marquee advertised, "ANTARCTICA!! Deals December through March!"

Stopped at the red light just past the agency, I closed my eyes and pondered being trapped in a military-erected compound on an icy plain, alone except for anti-social scientists.

In that moment, it felt very appealing (albeit probably very, very factually incorrect). And then, in my mind, I heard the clank of prison doors slamming. There'd be no running to Antarctica, or anywhere else for that matter, for me. I'd made my bed, and I had to lie in it. For the next eighteen years at least.

Mine was a metaphorical prison, conceived in a moment of duress, and certainly not reflective of my actual life or how I typically feel within in it about myself, my parenting, or my kids. I can actually get away, for a short bit at least, now and again. I do actually have freedom, albeit with caveats.

What if that parenting prison I felt in that moment wasn't metaphorical, though?

What if it was actual prison? And what if my kids were locked in it with me?

This is exactly the case in Aranjuez, a town 25 miles south of Madrid, Spain where sixteen families are imprisoned in cells together.

The families are grateful to have what they call a good opportunity, "They take good care of us, and having my child and husband with me makes me very happy," said Carmen Garcia, 28, an inmate occupying one of the large "five-star" 150 square feet cells along with her husband Victor and their two year old son, Victor Manuel.

Garcia was sentenced to a minimum ten years in prison for murdering her boyfriend. She met her husband Victor Lozano in prison. They got married behind bars and she gave birth to Victor Manuel.

There are 36 cells available, although only 16 are occupied. The family unit offers cribs, Disney characters on the walls, a playground for the kids, and a preschool. The children may stay with the parents---who may stay together in this co-ed facility---until they are three. After that, they are moved out to alternative care (outside family, friends, foster care, etc.) and the parents return to the regular prisons.

Unless the mother gets pregnant again. Prison psychologist Maria Yela says the comfort (of family togetherness) strongly motivates women to try for another child in order to remain in the family cells.

How beneficial is this situation for the children?

Carmen Garcia answers that:

"But this is not the best place to bring up a child. In some ways they are imprisoned too."

For the toddler, prison is the only world he knows.

At dawn a guard wakes the family up for roll call. At night, after a day playing with other inmates' children in a yard, Victor Manuel is locked up again. Sometimes he stands outside the cell crying because he does not want to go back behind the bars.

"For him it's the saddest part of the day," Garcia said.

Frances Crook, director of the London-based Howards League for Penal Reform, agrees that prison isn't the ideal environment for the children, despite the benefit of being with mom and dad, "There is a lot of evidence that shows that they will be affected in the long term. They don't see animals, they don't see trees, they don't have the stimulation that is needed to grow as a healthy child," she said.

Additionally, the children will then be separated with limited contact with their parents after they turn three.

Yela agrees that there are valid concerns; however, she thinks the situation is better than separating the children from the parents, "The most important thing was for the family to be together. The bond has to be established between the child and their parents," she said.

Spain has no plans for additional prisons like this one, and there are no other prisons like it anywhere else in the world. However, some prisons do offer nurseries for mothers with babies, and cells that accommodate mothers and children. Because most prison populations are segregated by sex, including the fathers is not feasible.

In May 2003, Yolanda Johnson-Peterkin studied a variety of research articles and statistics about children and incarcerated parents in the United States. She found:

* An estimated 1.5 million children (out of 72 million) have a parent behind bars -- an increase of more than half a million since 1991, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

* 22% of all minor children with a parent in prison were under 5 years old. Most of those children were younger than 10; the average age was 8.

* Over 10 million kids have experienced the incarceration of a parent at some point in their lives.

* 90 percent of children in long-term foster care have a parent who has been arrested or incarcerated.

* Most children of male prisoners live with their mothers, and most children of female prisoners stay with other relatives.

* As many as 10 percent of women prisoners, however, have kids in foster
care -- which is where the adoption deadlines come into play.

* From 1989 to 1999, the number of female inmates in state and federal prison leapt from about 40,000 to almost 91,000.

* Approximately 70 percent of that total were mothers, and most of them were single parents.

* Based on those numbers, it's estimated that several thousand women have had their parental rights terminated as a result of relatively minor offenses due to the Adoption Act requirements, which require that parental rights be terminated if the parents didn't retrieve the children after a certain period -- typically between 15 and 22 months.

* 57 percent of imprisoned fathers and 54 percent of imprisoned mothers said they'd never had a personal visit with their children since entering prison. More than 10% of children have no contact---including calls or letters---with their parents at all.

* The percentage of black children with an imprisoned parent was nearly nine times greater than that of white children; the percentage for Hispanic children was about three times greater than that of white children.

(Link to the monograph published by National Resource Center for Foster Care and Permanency Planning at the Hunter College School of Social Work.)

With a "war on drugs" and a "tough on crime" approach to law enforcement, along with a "zero tolerance" policy for law breakers, prison populations have surged creating tremendous problems.

One that you don't hear much about are the innocent bystanders, the unintended victims: the children of incarcerated parents.

If you review the facts and figures above, you'll see that more than half of incarcerated parents do not see their children while imprisoned.

Our society generally believes, quite firmly, that prisons are not places for children.

I believe that generally we are so convinced of a black and white world in which those who are imprisoned are horrible and evil. It is not hard to accept---without much thought---that the prisoners' children are better off without them. If we blindly buy into this, we are missing a big point: children typically benefit from bonding with their parents, and some incarcerated parents (and their children) might truly benefit from state-supported family bonding.

How likely is it that the average foster parent (or any caretaker) will actively encourage children to remain in close contact with their incarcerated parents, especially with the belief that there is no benefit to it?

I challenge that point of view.

How likely is it that a mother---who has had no contact with her children due to their placement in foster care---can argue a case that, despite her lack of direct parental contact during her incarceration, which lasted more than 22 months, she still is bonded to her children and should retain her parental rights?

I challenge that case.

With family-friendly prisons, that bond would remain in place.

For some prisoners, for some children, that would not only be good, but could improve future success for both the parent and child, and their relationship post-incarceration.

Some prisoners are incarcerated for relatively minor offenses. Recidivism (the rate of re-incarceration) might be lessened, as might neglectful or troubled parenting, if prisons supported and encouraged families. Parents could learn strong parenting techniques, and the bond between parents and children could remain, or perhaps even deepen.

It's not for all cases, for every parent, or for every child. But for those who want it, a program that supports it, has tremendous potential.

Imagine going to prison...

Would you want to remain in contact with your children during that time? Would you hope that your family, and the prison, supported and encouraged your parental role?

It's easy to say prisoners ought to lose all privileges, but the state is very clear that once a parent, it's not a privilege, it's a right. Besides which, in the end, it's a human issue, with the best interests of children at stake.

Consider researching this issue. Consider learning about, and possibly supporting, some of the programs in this vein that groups such as the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners offers. There are amazing things we can do, such as open our minds, eyes and hearts.

copyright 2007 Julie Pippert

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Crunchy Carpets said…
Wow....that is sad and amazing.
I too choose Antartica...I think watching those sad male emperor penguins freeze their asses off all winter long would probably help me regain my perspective.
Sandy. said…
Things that make you go hmmm.

When I've suggested that orphanages might in fact be, um, better, than foster care, I'm often met with initial stares of disbelief. Followed by a verbal barrage proclaiming my theory ludicrous and ridiculous, and more than anything, wrong.

So, upon reading your post, I initially stared in disbelief. But then, hmmmm. It is certainly worthy of more thought.

Thanks for making me think. Still don't know the answer though.

IzzyMom said…
I've never heard of the children in prison thing. Those statistics are mind boggling. I'll go check out that link.

As for Antarctica...better go see it while it's still there.
Unknown said…
1. I remember the realization I had at one point that although I was the parent of a four year old, I wasn't required to act like one myself. Go figure!

2. I think it was around Father's day that I read an article and did a post about a prison in the U.S. where a group of fathers meet with their daughters for their Girl Scout meetings. It was such an amazing thing, this opportunity for men to connect with their daughters. They don't have to wear their prison uniforms during the visits and it just does wonders for the men and the girls. I'll see if I can find the link again and send it along.
Wow. I had not idea.

I can relate to the "flee" mentality. Junior Mayhem also has a spitting problem! UGH! I am going to have to think about my feelings on the inmate issue. I am torn between keeping a relationship with a parent, and removing a child from a bad situation. Of course, I don't know which would be more painful for the child.

Very insightful usual!
thailandchani said…
As one who has unexpectedly flown the coop on several occasions (no kids involved), there is a degree of appeal there. In retrospect though, I can see how difficult it was to build and rebuild, again and again. That's a type of stress in itself.

If you decide to fly the coop for a temporary reprieve, come to Khon Kaen. I'll meet you there. :)

The families in prison. Hm. I'll have to give that one some thought. On the surface, it sounds like a good idea but there are probably issues I haven't considered.


Her Bad Mother said…
Wow. I had no idea about the Spanish family prison, and I had no idea that such a forceful argument could be made on the side that you took. Thanks for making me think.
Julie Pippert said…
Thanks for so many great comments.

It took me a few days of reflection to decide how I felt. The bottom line to me was that no matter what, these people are their children's parents.

Most will have to resume a familial relationship.

In the end, I wondered, what is best for the children? How can we provide a solid home life and best chance for success?

I thought, truthfully, we need to support those familial relationships. Help the parents parent,and the children know their parents---though incarcerated--can indeed still be parents to them (and want to be---which, IMO, is the most important thing. Help the parents feel worthy/capable of parenting.)

Hiding ugliness from children works no better than trying to pull the wool over the eyes of an adult.

I'm not sure I want the children to *live* there, although I do think in the early years the bonding is important and should be supported.

However, the scout troops Mary mentioned and other programs from the organization I linked to appear really, really important.

But maybe I ought to have expressed my opinion about crime and criminals first.

Sandy, the idea behind foster care is often better than the implementation. However, I have a number of excellent examples of foster care I can list off the top of my head (a number of my friends foster). So I think in large part it is anecdotal for me. I probably need real data. Have you blogged about orphanages? I'd love to see your POV.

Crunch, the emperor penguins. OMG I own that DVD. I had forgotten! I wonder if that was in my subconscious. Oh yes, indeed that would show perspective. balance an egg in frigid weather for that long. Oh yes.

Izzy, I'm interested in what you think after researching. I was so on the fence, but was swayed by the numbers.

Mary, got your email. I need to check into that. Thanks!

Queen, is Junior older or younger? I find the number 2 has such better defenses (and offenses).

Chani, we are the products of numerous reinvention. I like to say it is because we seek our greatest potential, but yes, it is stress in and of itself.

I am sure there are many issues, not all of which anyone can anticipate. I think it has to be case by case. Despite how often people say that's unrealististic.

HBM, I surprised myself, too, LOL.
Rachel Briggs said…
great post - and thanks for your comment on my blog, and your interest - I'm getting round to an update...!
Bones said…
I really struggle with the whole prison thing. My dad is a retired cop, and even though their cars are black and white, their idea of justice is far from it. We see the Rodney King videos on tv, but we don't ever see the videos of local police who are intimately aware of their community, know the residents who live their, and are constantly making judgment calls about what's best for the community and a particular family.

Think of the five minutes you spend waiting for the cop to walk to your car after he pulled you over for speeding. You are wondering what he’s doing to decide between giving you a ticket or give you a warning. As judgment calls that cops have to make on the fly go, that’s the easy one. The much harder one is what to do when they show up at a house with kids, a drunk parent who may or may not be a danger to themselves or their family, a single mom who’s selling green to make ends meet, a mom who begs not to have her abusive husband or boyfriend taken away, or to call child protective services on a family living in squalor but doing the best they can.

Most of those circumstances could wind a parent up in prison, and a kid without a parent. And don’t think for a second that law enforcement officers don’t take that into consideration when they decide if, when, and how to enforce the law.
Julie Pippert said…
Bones, I appreciate police tremendously (usually). I've met some great and some dreadful. I have no beef with law enforcement and this post isn't meant to ask for anything wrt that.

What I am asking is that once someone does end up in prison, if they are a parent, let's do what we can to help the child, particularly if the parental relationship can be salvaged, and if there will ultimately be reintegration of the incarcerated person into the family.

Unknown said…
I had read about this prison in the Sunday paper and was quite floored. I was unsure how I felt about it at first, but really in the end do not feel a prison is the best environment for a child to be raised. It cuts them off from too much. Unfortunately, that would mean seperation from the parents. It is a sad situation overall.
Julie Pippert said…
Momish, what do you think of the fact that these children wer enot existing at the tim ethe parents entered the story, the couples met and married in jail, then went on to get pregnant and have a hcild?

I admit, that part troubled me.

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