Building Bridges with Children of Incarcerated Parents

There are over two million people incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails. Most people never think about these men and women. Some of us do, often considering their plights and advocating for a more humane and equitable criminal justice system. But even the most impassioned activists often forget the other lives involved in prisoners’ stories — that the effects of incarceration reach far beyond the razor wire. In fact, some of those most impacted are the children who wait for the return of their imprisoned parent. According to a study byThe Sentencing Project, in 2007 more than 1.7 million children in the U.S. had a parent in prison or jail.

Judy Dworin and a team of teaching artists at the Hartford, CT-based Judy Dworin Performance Project, Inc. (JDPP) are utilizing the arts to provide members of this oft-ignored group with a forum for self-expression, trust-building and restored family connection. While providing collaborative arts residencies for women incarcerated at York Correctional Institution (YCI), Dworin began to understand how traumatic the forced separation of parent and child is for all involved.

Wanting to create a space for incarcerated parents and their children to explore their feelings and nurture their relationships, JDPP collaborated with Families in Crisis (FIC) and the Institute for Municipal and Regional Policy at Central CT State University (IMRP) to lead a pilot project consisting of a series of eight simultaneous workshops in which mothers at YCI and their children in Hartford communicated through dance, song, poetry and visual arts.

At the end of the series, the children and their caregivers were brought to the prison to share in amemorable day of collaborative arts engagement with their mothers. After the final session, the children expressed a strong desire to continue the process and to involve more children in it. They wanted others to experience the sense of belonging and acceptance that came with their participation in the JDPP collaborative, as they were all too familiar with the silence and loneliness that often sets in when one’s parent disappears behind bars.

The children that JDPP engages are part of a hidden population that Dworin believes has been “overlooked and under-represented.” The criminal justice system pays little mind to the familial needs of those it incarcerates, and the fear of stigma prevents both parents and children from telling their stories. ANational Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated fact sheet shows that as a result, children often internalize the feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger and sadness that result from a parent being locked up, and in turn can experience anxiety, depression, isolation and attention problems. Many have difficulty controlling aggressive, self-destructive and disruptive behaviors that are deeply rooted in their pain.

There is a very strong chance that these children will follow their parent’s footsteps right into the criminal justice system. However, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found that interventions that strengthen family ties can have a positive impact on incarcerated parents and their children. When parents return home with strengthened relationships the chance of recidivism declines, and children who have the support they need in order to cope with their parent’s incarceration are more likely to succeed in school and undergo healthy child and adolescent development.

Understanding the unique needs of incarcerated parents and their children, and having experienced the power that involvement in arts-based initiatives has in fulfilling these needs, JDPP and its partners sought funding for a three-year program that would allow them to continue the work that began with the pilot project. Last year, they were awarded a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, providing a partial base of support from which they developed a comprehensive program involving after-school workshops for youth ages 7 – 19, and in-school workshops for elementary and high school students. After these 8-week sessions, seven of the younger children and four high school assistants took part in an intensive one-week camp in which a performance piece was created and performed for caregivers and friends. Additionally, a group of incarcerated mothers came together with their children for a special arts-based weekend retreat.

Dworin has found that “there is an enormous silence that exists” among those directly impacted by incarceration, and “an enormous need for this silence to be opened up.” The arts, she believes, “is a special vehicle for them to find trust and tell their stories.” By engaging children with incarcerated parents, JDPP and its partner organizations have begun to address some of their most pressing needs.

Please support their efforts by sharing this story and visiting the JDPP website to see how you can get involved. And sign the attached petition to encourage your legislators to acknowledge the needs andrights of children with incarcerated parents. By maintaining a criminal justice system that disregards fragile family ties, our society has enforced the kind of separation that has lasting negative impacts. “What responsibility,” Dworin asks, “do we then have to restore connection?”

 

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