There are nearly 2.4 million people incarcerated in this country, most whom are parents of children under the age of 18. In fact, there are approximately 2.7 million children under the age 18 have a parent in prison or jail.
A big question that parents often have is- Should they take their child/children to prison to visit their parent? Whether or not you take your children to see a parent in prison is a personal decision. A decision that ideally should be made by both parents- even the one incarcerated.
The decision is an entirely personal one and it is a difficult decision to make. First, it depends on what YOU feel is in the best interest of YOUR child. Other things to consider are finances, prison policy, transportation and distance.
Studies have shown that most children manage the crisis of a parent being incarcerated better when they visit their parents. While not visiting may seem easier on their emotions in the short run, in the long run it may not be.
One fear that parents often have is that visiting the prison and NOT having a bad time may desensitize the children to incarceration. If the parent is someone they look up to as a role model, some believe that it will give them the impression that the family member’s incarceration is somehow a badge of honor. Whether or not this is something to worry about is unknown, but most issues can be avoided with communication.
If you decide to allow your children to visit:
- Make sure you visit by yourself prior to bringing your child/children. This will help you to prepare the child for the experience.
- Let your child/children know when you plan on taking them to visit. This will help them to set mental expectations.
- It is very important that you follow through on this commitment and avoid frequent rescheduling. Because they have a parent in prison, your children may have a lot of inconsistencies in their life already, so it’s vital that they are able to rely on you.
- Explain to your child the entire process. Tell them how long it will take to get to the prison. How you will be traveling. Explain to them about going through security, what the visitation room looks like and the rules. This will ease some of their anxiety.
- If it has been a long time since the child has seen their parent, have the incarcerated parent write the child and tell them they miss them and are excited to see them. If they have had any changes to their appearance that might startle the child, have them describe them to the child- this includes their regulation prison clothing. It is weird for a child to see their parent in an orange jumpsuit or khakis.
- Make sure that your child/children get a good night sleep. (If they can, they may be too anxious to sleep.) Give them a good meal before you begin traveling and make sure they eat again before the visit, if traveling too long. This will help them avoid any behavior issues due to being tired or hungry during the visit.
- If the child shows any signs of NOT wanting to visit you should respect that and not force them. Keep talking to them about it, trying to make them comfortable. Take them only if they are comfortable. After a visit if the child expresses they don’t want to visit again, don’t make them.
If you decide not to let your children visit
It is okay if YOU decide that visiting their parent is not in the child’s best interest.
However, you should at least consider:
It is important that you consider telling the child/children that their parent is incarcerated. You don’t want them to think that their parent abandoned them. Children have a way of blaming themselves for things that they don’t understand.
Children are sometimes told their parents are out of town, attending college, working or in the army. You may think you are protecting them, but sometimes lies just end up causing the child/children more confusion. Besides children are way smarter than we think and they ALWAYS find things out. Knowing you lied to them may cause them to distrust you.
Also, there is nothing wrong with the incarcerated parents explaining to the child that they broke the law and now have to deal with their punishment. It’s never too early to teach a child how to take responsibility for their actions and understand that certain things do have dire consequences.
Some things you may consider doing, if you don’t allow them to visit:
- Not visiting will make it difficult for parents to maintain a bond with the child/children- but you should allow them to write regularly and call when they can.
- Allow them to share photos so that both the parent and child can at least see what the other looks like.
- Talk about their parent positively- share stories with them about their parent from before they were incarcerated.
Remember at the end of the day, the impact of incarceration on children can be harsh, but visitation and other forms of contact with the incarcerated parent such as writing letters or phone calls- can help strengthen their ability to cope.