By Rachel Crumpler
When a child goes to visit an incarcerated parent, they have to navigate a complex maze. They’re shepherded past barbed wire fences and through locked doors. They watch their caregivers get patted down. They often walk down drab halls to sit in drab rooms with a parent who’s wearing a jumpsuit.
It can be a traumatizing experience for a child.
Carteret Correctional Center Warden Embery Morton started thinking about those children after hearing a presentation by Melissa Radcliff. She’s the program director at Our Children’s Place of Coastal Horizons Center, a statewide program focused on children of incarcerated parents and parents who are reentering society after incarceration.
Radcliff spent the spring of 2022 making presentations to prison staff all over the state. She spoke about the importance of maintaining parent-child bonds during incarceration, and of the need to make prison visitation spaces more child-friendly.
Morton heard Radcliff’s presentation, but he was initially reluctant. After nearly 30 years working in the North Carolina prison system, he thought he knew how things should be done.
“I was trained as a soldier to run a prison,” Morton said.
But he let Radcliff’s message sink in: Whether it’s addressed or not, prisons have a role in parent-child relationships.
He went back to his correctional facility and looked at visitation with new eyes: He saw children spaced out, not talking, uneasy about the environment.
That’s when he realized there really was space — while still maintaining security — to make visitation more welcoming for children.
“What I’ve done is turn the family culture on, instead of the paramilitary culture,” Morton said. “It’s a switch that we can push. If I need to turn the paramilitary switch on, I can. I’m trained to do that. But if we turn the family culture on, we’re developing relationships. We’re manifesting peace in our prisons.”
He’s brought in board games to play, snacks for kids, holiday activities and parenting classes.
Now at visitation, he hears more laughter and sees more engagement between parent and child.
Morton’s facility is one of the state’s 13 designated reentry prisons working to redesign visitation spaces to be more welcoming for children. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention has awarded the state prison system $680,486 to do this work and to expand services to better meet the needs of incarcerated parents and their minor children. Our Children’s Place is assisting with the project.
“We’re thinking outside the box on how to make trips less traumatic for a child to enter into a facility where you see razor wire and barbed wire,” Morton said. “Because they’re a victim too.”
Thousands of incarcerated parents
Patricia Blackburn, warden at Lincoln Correctional Center, has understood the need for this type of focus on families for years.
She’s seen countless children enter prisons — through the barbed wire fences and security searches and past armed, uniformed officers. She’s seen the intimidation on their faces — thinking they have to sit and be quiet or they’d also get in trouble.
In 2016, 47 percent of people incarcerated in state prisons and 57 percent of people in federal prisons had at least one minor child, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which was released in March 2021. That amounted to nearly 1.5 million minors in the United States who had an incarcerated parent.
In North Carolina, nearly 19,000 children have a parent who is incarcerated in a state prison, according to a Department of Adult Correction report obtained by NC Newsline. Almost 10,000 people — about one-third of the state’s overall prison population — are parents of children younger than 18 years old.
“We just all, as correctional staff and professionals, need to realize that this is a very intimidating thing for this child that started the minute their parent went behind bars somewhere, and we can either make it as positive as we can or just continue on with that trauma for the child,” Blackburn said.
Losing a parent to incarceration can be a traumatic experience and is associated with a range of negative outcomes, such as increased antisocial behaviors and poor sleeping and eating patterns. But well-designed parent-child visits in prisons and jails can help nurture relationships and minimize harm.
When Radcliff told Blackburn about a project redesigning prison visitation rooms while she was in her previous position as associate warden at Gaston Correctional Center, she was immediately on board. It provided a path for the change she knew needed to happen.
“I think there are more pockets of people saying, ‘Oh, right, let’s not forget about children and families,’” Radcliff said.
Supporting parent-child relationships
To set the stage for why the changes were needed, and to start the project, Radcliff educated prison staff on the importance of maintaining parent-child relationships during incarceration.
Radcliff then criss-crossed North Carolina visiting all 13 participating reentry prisons — facilities designed to prepare incarcerated people who are nearing their release dates with support to transition back to the community. In each facility, she assessed their visitation spaces and procedures, approaching the site visits as if she were a first-time visitor with a child. Could the directions on the prison’s website get someone to the facility’s visitor parking lot? Is there a bathroom with a changing table? What does the space look like?
- Anson — men’s facility
- Anson — women’s facility
- NC Correctional Institution for Women
- New Hanover
After the visits, she provided each facility with a checklist of things they could do to make the areas more child-friendly, from changes to the physical space, to staff approach and interaction suggestions. Many of the recommendations were simple, such as adding a clock to the wall so children can know how much longer is left in the visit or having correctional officers walk through the metal detector to show a child how it works.
“It’s not about coming in and having loads of fun and thinking that’s where I want to go back, but instead saying, ‘I want to go back and see my parent,’ and it just happens to be in a space that makes that more comfortable,” Radcliff said. “How do we think about the space supporting the relationship?”
Case managers also joined five of the prisons to work specifically with incarcerated parents and their families. They’re leading parenting classes and working one-on-one with parents to provide support as they prepare to leave prison and resume their role as a parent full time.
Primary colors, beanbag chairs
The correctional facilities are in various stages of making changes to their visitation rooms using funds available through the grant, donations and reconfiguring items already available on site.
At Gaston Correctional where visitation occurs outside, Blackburn added a privacy fence so that the search procedures of the incarcerated parent were not visible to the children. The facility purchased padded stadium seats to make the concrete benches more comfortable. Staff put together “connection kits” with items such as blocks, puzzles and art supplies that a parent and child can work on together during their visit.
Blackburn even allowed people who stayed infraction-free all week before a family visit to buy a bag of candy from the commissary and bring it to share with their kid.
“It was just really the littlest of things you could see bring smiles to these children,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn said more kids started coming to visitation, having more positive experiences. She said she understands that these children are not responsible for the actions of their parents, yet they suffer because of those actions.
“If we can give them a story other than ‘I went to prison to see my dad,’” Blackburn said. “A story like, ‘Me and my dad played Hungry Hungry Hippos,’ that’s a better story for that child.”
She brought the same visitation philosophy to Lincoln Correctional when she arrived in December, and she is working to implement changes. Her plan includes painting a mural in the corner of the rec building where visitation occurs, bringing in smaller chairs or beanbag chairs for children and adding a TV for a child to watch videos if parents need a moment alone for conversation.
Warden Miranda Richardson at Anson Correctional Institution, a facility that houses men and women, also embraced making a better environment for children. Richardson engaged incarcerated folks at her facility in the visitation room redesign process. They painted a mural on the wall to transform the women’s and men’s visitation spaces. Bookshelves and picnic tables for outside visitation also got a bright coat of paint to add a more inviting pop of color, she said.
“They’re really proud of what they’ve done and really want their family to come and see the things that they’re doing,” Richardson said, referring to the positive effects of getting incarcerated people’s buy-in on the project.
The visitation rooms got some new furniture, books, coloring materials and more.
The changes have gone over well, Richardson said. She’s seeing more interaction happen in the visitation spaces, which is key for helping facilitate positive family reunification post-release, she said.
While Richardson said some of her staff were initially leery of the changes, thinking it would look like a daycare, they are now on board. It became clear to staff that it was the right decision after watching children and parents in the redesigned spaces.
“Nobody wants to play up that prison is a good place,” Richardson said. “But we also don’t want to traumatize or add to the stigma that the child is having.
“Anything that we can do to lighten that experience is important.”