Chris Dickon

Family Ties, Through Prison Walls

At age 15 and mature beyond her years, Kylie sits burrowed into the corner of her living room couch and reads a poem written to her by her mother, Donna, five years ago.

"When you laugh I will laugh with you, and when you have tears I will kiss them from your face. There will be no loneliness."

The poem has long since been enshrined in a frame, and Kylie enfolds it in her arms, tears in her eyes.

Kylie had received the poem, and a videotape of her mother reading it out loud, on Mother's Day in the year 2000. It came in the mail from the prison where her mother was serving time. The video was one of thousands created for the children of prisoners since 1999, thanks to the Messages Project.

From Addiction to Jail

Kylie was eight when she was pushed abruptly into a growing group of American children - those whose lives are turned upside down by a parent's departure for jail or prison. As the country has escalated its war on crime and drugs, the number of children with parents in prisons and jails has grown to over 2 million since 1991, an increase of over 50 percent. (For most children in this group, the imprisoned parent is their father, but for a growing number - 8 percent - it's their mother.)

After surgeries to remove a tumor on her spine, Donna had become addicted to painkillers. She was convicted of altering prescriptions to feed her addiction. Though her lawyer had led her to expect a sentence of time served and therapy, Donna instead wound up spending three and a half years in jails and prison, starting in 1998.

Now three years out of prison and once again a fully involved mother, Donna remembers the worst moment of her life. "I sat in this room by myself and all I could process was, 'I'm not going to see my daughter for 3 1/2 years.'"

"I used to dream about her every night," says Donna. "Then I went through periods I wasn't dreaming about her. It worried me: am I going to forget about her?"

Kylie had not been prepared for such a long separation from her mother. For the first eight months she was not allowed to visit Donna in the Chesapeake, Virginia jail that held her, though she was living with her aunt just two blocks away. And even when she began to have visits she felt at sea. "I always had that thought, what if I don't see my mom alive again? What if something happens to her in that place and I'm not there?"

A Mother Who's Been There

Carolyn LeCroy was an award -winning media producer in television and advertising when an arrest for marijuana possession put her life on a different path. The middle-class mother of two teenagers became an inmate in a Virginia prison. And though her children made the long drive from home for visitation days, she felt a painful disconnect between her role as a mother and her status as a prisoner. "I felt guilty as hell about disappointing the kids. Shamed. They felt shamed." Other women, she found, struggled with similar feelings.

When she was released after 14 months, she got a VHS camera and went right back to the mothers she had left behind. With the cautious blessing of the Virginia Department of Corrections, she gave women the opportunity to simply talk to their children on videotape, perhaps to read them stories.

Since 1999 the Messages Project has worked in six state prisons three times a year to create an estimated 2500 tapes from parents to children. Most have been from mothers, though the project is beginning to reach out to fathers. The tapes are mailed directly to children and families without review or screening by corrections officials.

On a recent Messages taping day at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, which sprawls alongside a rural highway south of Charlottesville, everyone works to give as many women as possible a chance to make a tape. Each woman gets a quick makeover from fellow inmates, then sits down in a quiet room with just the camera and its operator - on this day, that's Kevin O'Sullivan, a freelance videographer who has volunteered time to this effort since the first taping in 1999. He's learned how to help the women talk to their absent children, when to offer them as much privacy as he can or when to help them say what's really in their hearts.

Scott Richeson, correctional program director for the Virginia Department of Corrections, is a strong supporter of the Messages project, but says such projects are only possible in a well-run facility that puts a premium on security. "Fluvanna creates an environment where the offenders actually can do programming, creative ideas can blossom, and officers can support things like this," says Richeson.

An Emotional Lifeline - with Limits

It was from Fluvanna that Kylie received the taped poem from her mother.

"Oh my goodness," she says now. "It just ripped me apart. For Mothers Day? I felt like I couldn't give anything to her, but for her to give that to me on Mother's Day, that was one of the best things I got in my life."

Kylie played the tape all night long the first night. She played it after difficult days at school. She played it without sound sometimes so she could talk to her mother and pretend that a smile on her face was reaction to something Kylie had said. A few times she tried to hug the television set.

Martin LaBarbera is a criminal justice consultant to corrections systems across the country and a strong supporter of the Messages Project, but he doesn't hesitate to point out its limitations. "We've got a lot of kids who are starving for parent attention and contact. And they're trying to resolve a lot of their own guilt and feelings of shame because 'my parents are in prison'. So that tape becomes their teddy bear, it becomes their huggy blanket. But what are they holding onto? They're holding on to an image on a tape and words on a tape, but they're really not hugging a human being."

And Kylie agrees. As much as the tape maybe saved her life, she says now, "It wasn't even the next best thing" to having her mother in person.

"It's just overwhelming to a kid," says Kylie, still burrowed in her couch and holding the hand of a mother she once tried to hug in a television set. "You don't understand it. They honestly don't think about the children. They think about 'Oh, the prosecutor lost her last case. She's in a bad mood.' That doesn't matter to us. That's a whole different thing. That's your all's problem. What they need to do is to sit these people down in the courtroom before they make these decisions and they need to realize 'Okay, she has a kid.'"

A New Attitude?

Arlene Lee, director of the Federal Resource Center for Children of Prisoners of the Child Welfare League of America, says the criminal justice system is - slowly - beginning to take children's needs into account "as they start to look at what's happening to these kids. They're starting to recognize that there's a reverberation into the next generation. We're seeing mental health issues, behavioral issues, problems in the schools, attachment disorders."

Traditionally, the attitude has been different, says Elizabeth Gaynes of The Osborne Association, a New York-based service agency for those who are incarcerated and their families. "It wasn't a concern in terms of what would the impact be," says Gaynes. "I think that in terms of people who actually thought about it they thought that these were bad people and their children were better off without them."

The barriers between children and inmates remain formidable. According to U.S. Department of Justice figures, only 20% of inmates receive monthly visits from their children.

A growing number of programs are trying to bridge the gap. Since 2002 Volunteers of America and Scholastic Books have teamed up to create Words Travel in which inmate parents read books to their children on audiotapes. A number of organizations run summer camps near prisons to give children better access to their parents. The Osborne Association is able to put some New York City area children in airplanes for visits to distant upstate prisons. And the Messages Project continues as a barely funded volunteer effort.

"There does seem to be some momentum in this area," says Gaynes. The Osborne Association is getting ready to launch a campaign to establish a Bill of Rights for children of incarcerated parents, something she believes everyone will be able to agree to no matter what their political point of view.

"Everybody is starting to think and say that we can't run our prisons just for incarceration," says consultant Martin La Barbera. "So we've got what I think is an exciting moment here, an historical moment... one in which prisons and the people in them are seen increasingly as members of the larger community, and in this case as the parents of children."

Carolyn LeCroy ( can share advice and ideas with others working to help children stay connected with their parents in prison.

• More information about the growing effort to mentor children of prisoners.
• US Department of Justice on offender re-entry to society, responsible fatherhood and helping children of prisoners.
• Many states welcome volunteer help in their prisons.

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