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What Can Illinois’ Jails And Prisons Do To Improve The Lives Of The Children Of The Incarcerated?

Alexis Mansfield, center, testifies before a state House committee on ways to improve the lives of the children of the incarcerated. At the table with her is state Rep. Delia Ramirez. left, and Colette Payne, who is with Cabrini Green Legal Aid.

Advocates have ideas being hashed out by a state task force.

Sean Crawford speaks with Maureen McKinney about this story.

Attorney Alexis Mansfield said her clients have told her troubling stories of what happens when small children reach the glass in a jail that separates them from a parent.

“They’ll be so excited because they miss their moms terribly,” said Mansfield, who is senior adviser for children and families at the Women’s Justice Institute and a member of a state task force on children of the incarcerated. “They haven’t known where they were. They might not understand, especially when they’re so little.”

“And they will run to their mom, seeing their mom in that room. And they’ll get to the glass and they can’t get through it. And you’ll hear stories again and again of kids banging on the glass trying to get through, crying, putting their hands up trying to reach their moms.”

This Illinois Issues story is a follow up to one last week on efforts in the state to help this beleaguered populations of kids, who are more likely than the general public to have mental and physical health problems and drug use history.  Those issues are worsened if the child also has experience with the juvenile justice system.

But the state legislature recently adopted a set of laws aimed at easing the effects of a parents’ detention on a child. One law requires a judge to consider the impact statements of defendants detailing how their incarceration could impact their family. The other created a task force on children of the incarcerated that is expected to produce a report this spring.

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, D-Chicago, leads a meeting of a state taskforce on children of the incarcerated. courtesy of Alexis Mansfield

State Rep. Delia Ramirez, a Chicago Democrat who is chairwoman of the task force and sponsor of the law creating it, said, “We understand that there are more than 200,000 children in the state of Illinois whose parents are currently serving in either the Department of Corrections or awaiting sentencing or trial at one of the county jails. And we know there are a number of barriers and challenges for these children as a result of that separation.”

Mansfield said she has had many mothers tell her that they’ve asked temporary caregivers of the children to take the kids away from a jail visit.

“They can’t stand watching their children banging on the glass trying to get to them. It’s traumatic for everyone involved. And then the result of that is that they typically don’t have the kids come back. And that’s just as damaging. Their children don’t see them for a long time and wonder where they are, especially when the pre-trials continue to go on and on,” she said. “It’s often not until they get to prison that their kids can see them.”

In prison, different challenges occur. Mansfield says the biggest problem is that while 40 percent of the female inmates come from Chicago, both prisons for women are about 180 miles away in central Illinois. Logan, the largest prison for women, is in Lincoln, which is about 30 miles from Springfield. Decatur Correctional Center, located in the city for which it is named, is about 40 miles from the state capital.

“It’s also very far from southern Illinois and places like St. Louis, Carbondale and even farther from places like Rockford. And so just the distance alone makes it difficult for families to come and visit,’’ she said. “Families impacted by incarceration tend to have fewer financial resources. And so to be able to get a car or even a train ticket and then a car once they get there is very difficult for most families, let alone the food and the hotel and everything else.’’

Mansfield said the visiting spaces themselves are often cold and barren. At Logan, there are few toys and not a designated area for children to play, which Mansfield said makes it difficult for kids to have a visit “where they can actually bond with their parents and feel relaxed rather than sitting at a table together and not really moving – not being able to do the things that kids want to do with their parents.”  A spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections said there is a kitchen playset and other toys in the visiting area and that the agency is open to other suggestions to make the visiting area more family-centered.

Meanwhile, physical conditions at that prison are inhumane because of issues like standing water and sewage and pest infestation, said Jennifer Vollen-Katz, executive director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison monitoring organization. A recently released report by the association found staff shortages, as well as other issues.  Vollen-Katz says the facilities issues are systemwide.

The spokeswoman wrote, “The Illinois Department of Corrections has recently implemented extensive changes to improve conditions at Logan Correctional Center, including the implementation of gender-responsive programming and policies, the development of a pregnancy wing and additional staff training. The Department has focused heavily on shifting the culture of the women’s division to one that is trauma-informed and family-centered.

“Mental health treatment remains a priority and IDOC is committed to ensuring incarcerated individuals receive treatment that supports their well-being, rehabilitation, and successful community re-entry.”

Even though jails are closer to most of the mothers’ homes, most jails tend to be far worse on visitation issues than facilities in the Illinois Department of Corrections, Mansfield said.  She adds of the 92 jails in the state, at least 33 have no contact visits at all.

“And for many of the others, they only have visits to class or limited context. This for people with court orders, or who go through special programming, which also tends to be fairly limited. So that means that a lot of children don’t see their mom in person. They only see them through videos, if they see them at all, or they might see them through glass. But certainly don’t get the type of quality visit that they need to maintain their bond and to feel loved and safe.”

The state’s largest jail – Cook County – has some innovative programs for detainees with children, but advocates say too few children had contact visits. Sheriff Tom Dart said he really became interested in children of detainees about three years ago. He said it occurred to him that the jail could make an effort to improve the situation.

“Eighty-some percent of the people that come to my jail, don’t go to prison, they go right back to the community, and they’re not just going to some random house that’s picked out of a phone book. They’re going back to their house. And so while they’re with us, we can’t just be working on them. We’ve  got to be working on sort of the family side of it.”

Dart continued “And what better way to do that than to try to figure out ways where we can either build bridges between parents and children, or further expand on bridges that are always already there, give assistance to parents who are good parents, but found themselves incarcerated, and we just want to give them some support.”

According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, 31,508 detainees were booked into the jail in a six-month period last year and 51% self-reported having children under the age of 18. That added up to a combined 37,437 children. Last year, 51 of the visits to female detainees were logged. Department spokesman Joe Ryan said the jail works with detainees to prepare them for visits.

Dart said the jail faces challenges when it comes to contact visits.  They can be labor intensive as authorities need to learn information about detainees that might make visitation problematic.

“Does this person have custody rights?  Are there prohibitions based on a DCFS case? Are there issues dealing with a civil custodial thing, where it has nothing to do with DCFS, but this person does not have visitation rights? So we have to go through all of that.’’

Dart notes some of the detainees may be on the sex offender registry. ”So those issues, we feel like we’re really, really vetting those. …But, it just complicates things.”

A program at the Cook County Jail allows detainees to play chess with their children — once at month at an area high school and virtually at other times. Cook County Sheriff's Office

Recently, the jail has placed a focus on male inmates and their children, Dart said.  Programs have included a contact visit for fathers at the Children’s Museum at Navy Pier in August and another December contact visit for seven fathers and their children. Another program allows fathers to play chess with children in a virtual setting and to gather once a month at an area high school.

“It’s been very challenging,” Dart said. “Some of it is, frankly, stuff that I foolishly didn’t fully appreciate the difficulty of, I guess. And so it’s taken us a little bit of time to get as engaged as I thought I’d be able to do quicker. It’s taken longer, but it’s been really successful.”

Both Mansfield and Ramirez said the programs are innovative, but have involved too few participants. “My question is, how much do families know about this? How welcoming and comfortable is it? Do they feel safe in going? If the grandmother or the mother or the aunt has  a record? Is she allowed to take the child, you know, like as a chaperone? Or are there limitations because of the records,” Ramirez asked.

“So I celebrate what they’re beginning to do. And I really am calling on the social service agencies, many of them that are run by our state agencies, in figuring out how we make this accessible in the community itself and known so that families are able to participate in it because they want to.”

Dart said he is eager to hear what options the task force may come up with to expand the programs to more families.

Mansfield said, “Jails and prisons can be an intimidating environment for children and for families. And that is important for the entire process to be child friendly when a child visits for security to be trained in how to treat children when they come. How to talk to them. How to make it an environment that’s not so intimidating for them.”

As an example, Mansfield said it’s important that staff not speak disrespectfully to parents in front of the children.  “Sometimes that can be really damaging for kids to see their mom treated in a way that makes them go home and think, is my mom okay? Am I going to see her again? What’s happening to her right now?”

“Kids who act up after visits are often acting out because they want to see their parents again and they don’t know when they will. They’re acting up because they are concerned and worried.’’ she said. “And so there’s a lot of things that can be done about the process from start to finish to support it and make it a better way for kids and parents to bond.”

Copyright 2020 NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS. To see more, visit NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS.
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