'Just a terrible place to go'by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
America's prison population is up, again. The latest numbers show a 2 percent increase over the previous year. U.S. prisons hold nearly 2.3 million inmates, and about half of those inmates also have children. We often hear from adults about the children of incarcerated parents, but we don't hear from the children themselves. That is, until now. MPR spoke to several kids whose parents are incarcerated, and agreed not to identify them by name.
St. Paul, Minn. — A 16-year-old we'll call Chris says he was scared the first time he visited his dad at Stillwater prison. Since then, he says he's gotten used to the process, and has been there enough times that he can describe it in detail.
'I CAN HUG HIM FOR 10 SECONDS'
"They open one door, it's electronically opened, and it's just this big noise. It just rumbles, and you walk through and it closes. There's another door that opens up; you walk through that and then you put your ID in there and it closes," says Chris.
"Then the last door opens up. You get to walk through there, and there are two levels," Chris continues. "There's about four stairs leading to a lower level where there's about six rows of chairs. And then on the upper level there's about eight rows of chairs."
"There's a small red square where you can hug the incarcerated person, like my dad, and I can hug him for about a maximum of 10 seconds, I think," Chris says.
During visits, an officer sits on a wooden perch, overlooking the red square and the rows of chairs. Visitors sit about four feet across from inmates. No physical contact is allowed. For Chris, the distance is difficult.
"I'd like to be able to give my dad a hug longer than 10 seconds, and sit next to him and stuff like we used to -- and kind of just goof off. It's kind of difficult to do that now," says Chris.
Visitors at Stillwater prison include wives, girlfriends, male friends, and other children.
"The dads with children seem to have more of a friendly look on their faces when their children are there," says Chris. "And they seem like a nicer person than if a friend had been visiting, or a parent, because they have more of a serious face. But I kind of expect that because they don't want to look sad in front of their children."
DOESN'T WANT TO END UP LIKE DAD
Chris' dad is in prison because he killed another motorist while driving drunk. Chris disapproves of what his father did. He doesn't blame the court system or the police that he only sees his father in prison now.
In fact, he says he tries to behave around police officers and treats them with respect, because "they're only doing their jobs." Nevertheless, he says his relationship with his dad is challenging under the circumstances.
"He just talks about how things would be so much different if he had more freedom. He tries to tell us that we need to get out there more often to see him and visit him and stuff like that, and it just gets annoying when he tries to dictate our lives when he's in there," Chris says. "I know not to do anything that my dad did, just because I don't ever want to end up in his situation because I think prison is just a terrible place to go."
Chris continues to go to prison to visit his dad on weekends. Those visits, though, can be odd. Sometimes there's nothing to talk about. What would be normal outside the prison gates, like posing for a father-son photo, can be awkward behind prison walls.
"On the weekends, there's a prisoner who has a job where he can take pictures of you with your dad. I haven't actually gotten a picture yet but ... I kind of want to ... well, I don't know. I might want to, it just might be kind of weird to hang it up somewhere," Chris says.
Chris' dad is at the men's prison in Stillwater. Many incarcerated parents are women.
INMATES AS MOTHERS
Shakopee women's prison looks less imposing from the outside than Stillwater, but it is still a prison. Some women are here for years, some for life. Many are mothers.
In one visiting room, an inmate in her early 20s holds a sleeping infant. The woman stands, rocking back and forth while the baby's little head rests on her left shoulder.
Other mothers here have older children, too. Shakopee has a unique program that allows some teenagers to go beyond the visiting room once a month.
On this day, four girls huddle around a small table in a room just off the prison chapel. They say they haven't really talked much to each other before today, but they appear to have an immediate rapport.
The girls come from different parts of the state; their families have different income levels. But there is mutual understanding.
Two girls, Monica and Kathy, are sisters and have peaches-and-cream complexions. Monica says their mom is in prison for manufacturing meth.
"When I found out my mom was going to prison, I cried. I just felt like nothing could go worse, but then it did. We had to move into a foster home because we had no one else. And then the rest of our family turned against us; it just dropped from there," Monica says.
KIDS ARE SHUNNED BY FRIENDS AND FAMILY
The other girls say they, too, felt like friends and family turned against them as well as their mothers.
If there is a problem that most children of incarcerated parents face, it's stigma. They say society judges them based on their parents' crimes. One of the girls, Patrice, remembers telling a good friend that her mother was serving time for second-degree murder.
"It felt like she was looking down on me or something, like 'Eeeeww' or something. 'I couldn't believe your mom could do that,' or whatever. It kind of hurt me, so after her I didn't tell anybody else," says Patrice.
Another girl, Amy, interjects, "or they say, 'You're just like your mother!'
Monica's sister Kathy agrees.
The girls say such comments leave them feeling isolated at a time when they need friends and family the most. For teenagers, that can be especially difficult when the need to fit in is so strong.
Like Chris, the girls also found their first visits to prison scary. Amy said she wished "someone nice" would have called and prepared her as to how to act and what to expect.
Amy's mother is serving time for embezzlement. Her comments elicited reactions from the other girls.
"I didn't want to go alone because I didn't know what it would be like," says Amy.
"You thought they'd be in handcuffs," says Kathy.
"Yeah!" Amy responds.
"So did I," says Monica. "When I first came here, I thought my mom would be in handcuffs and no, I don't want to see her like that. Orange clothes, yeah that's all you see around you are pictures of people in orange."
On the topic of their moms being in prison, the girls appeared ambivalent. They felt their moms' prison sentences were too long, or that they should have gotten treatment instead.
"My mom's not a bad person. She just did stupid stuff, and she's changing and she's changed now," says Amy.
"But that's the thing," adds Monica. "I think we should help people with their problems instead of just like blaming them, and 'You should go to jail, you should go to prison, you should go to juvie,' or something like that. It's just we need our parents, and I don't think the court, the lawyers understand that."
"I know in my case, they did," says Amy. "I didn't go to any of my mom's court dates because I didn't want to. But I know that all of my family made sure that they would take into consideration that she needs her mom and her mom needs her. And they made sure that that was on the table, but I still think they blew it way out of proportion."
The girls also acknowledged that prison has had some positive effects on their moms. Their mothers aren't doing drugs, not smoking, and they are healthier physically. In addition, the girls feel they're no longer competing with their mothers' addictions for attention.
Patrice says seen a change in her mom since prison.
"I felt comfortable around her, but I didn't think she was showing me the love, like (her mom would say) 'I don't want a hug right now,'" Patrice says. "Now...."
Monica finishes Patrice's sentence, "Now she wants a hug all the time."
"Yes! And I think I deserve that. I love that," says Patrice.
Patrice and her mom hold hands during the prison visit. Unlike at Stillwater prison, the teen program at Shakopee allows physical contact between the mothers and children.
HARD TO HATE SOMEONE WHO LOVES YOU
In the end, the girls say that no matter their mothers' crimes or society's views, prison cannot sever the bonds with their mothers.
"You're going to love your parents no matter what," says Amy. "You say, 'I hate them, I hate them, I hate them,' even if they did terrible things to you or terrible things to society or whatever. But you still love them."
"It's kind of hard to hate someone who loves you," Monica says.
"Yeah, it's kind of hard to hate someone that gave you life," says Amy.
All of the teens interviewed for this story said they've learned from their parents' mistakes and want to take the right path.
Chris, whose dad is at Stillwater, is thinking of becoming an accountant. The two sisters want to start their own businesses -- Kathy wants to cut and style hair, Monica is interested in therapeutic massage. Patrice and Amy are intent on going to college. Amy wants to do a kind of prison ministry where she can work with children of incarcerated parents.
There are about 300 mothers at the Shakopee women's prison. The special teen program is limited to 20-25 children once a month, because of the staff required to supervise the visits. As a result, the waiting list is seven months long.
- All Things Considered, 05/24/2006, 5:17 p.m.