Every weekend during the school year for the past three years, I’ve spent a couple of hours tutoring inmates at Manson prison, a high-security correctional facility run by the state of Connecticut for male offenders aged 14 to 21 that’s located about 25 minutes from Yale’s campus.
The more I’ve gotten to know the inmates, the more I’ve begun to understand the importance of family relationships in the context of the criminal justice system. A formerly incarcerated individual who receives emotional and economic support from his family upon being released from prison will be far less likely to return to prison. A father who’s serving time in prison instead of raising his son could be beginning a vicious circle of multigenerational incarceration.
For the 2.3 million Americans currently behind bars, as well as the 2.7 million American children with at least one incarcerated parent, sustaining family bonds in spite of the physical separation of prison or jail is critical to their long-term wellbeing. These relationships reduce individuals’ chances of reoffending, improving public safety and reducing incarceration costs.
Inmate visitation is perhaps the most important factor in preserving family relationships over the course of a long sentence. The Minnesota Department of Corrections, in a study conducted between 2003 and 2007, found that consistent visitation by families reduced the risk of recidivism for felonies by 13 percent and for parole violations by 25 percent.
In June, Charles Samuels, the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, sent a letter to all incarcerated parents in BOP custody in which he wrote, “There is no substitute for seeing your children, looking them in the eye, and letting them know you care about them … the staff in the BOP are committed to giving you opportunities to enhance your relationship with your children.”
However, despite these sentiments, the BOP is planning to take away these opportunities from hundreds of mothers housed at the federal prison in Danbury, Conn.
Citing overcrowding in men’s prisons, the BOP is planning to convert Danbury, the only federal women’s prison in the BOP’s 10-state Northeast region, into a men’s facility by the end of this year. The BOP would transfer approximately 1,140 female Danbury inmates, who live in the Northeast, to a new federal prison in Ala., as well as potentially to other sites far outside the region.
This proposal would severely reduce, and in many cases entirely cut off, visits between these 1,140 women and their families, including their more than 700 children. It would no longer be feasible for most of these families, many of whom are low-income, to visit their loved ones, especially on any sort of regular basis, when they are 1,136 miles away from Danbury in rural Aliceville, Ala., a small town without an airport or train or bus station.
Moreover, there are concerns that tiny, remote Aliceville does not have a large enough population to support volunteer services — including legal aid and education programs, like the one I participate in at the Manson prison.
Fortunately, there are better alternatives to the BOP’s plans. One sensible option is a program started by the Women’s Prison Association called JusticeHome, which enables some women who plead guilty to felonies to stay at home while reporting to court regularly and receiving supervision. Enrolling women in JusticeHome is far less expensive than incarcerating them and allows women to continue to raise their children.
The BOP has said that prison overcrowding is the reason for the Aliceville transfer. But overcrowding is a result of failed U.S. criminal justice policy, and the children of the female inmates at Danbury should not be punished for this failure by being cut off from their mothers.
A short-term solution to prison overcrowding is programs like JusticeHome and other community-based incarceration alternatives. The long-term solution is not to build more correctional facilities like the one in Aliceville, but rather to reduce the U.S.’s massive prison population. We have less than five percent of the world’s population but nearly a quarter of its prisoners. Taking steps such as decriminalizing certain nonviolent drug offenses, reforming mandatory sentencing and emphasizing rehabilitation and re-entry efforts will all help to bring about an end to our country’s crisis of mass incarceration.
Will Portman is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Jessica Garland and Nia Holston contributed to the writing of this column. The writers are board members of the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project.