IDOC commits to change prison visitation

By SpencerRoush

Anger, loneliness, sadness and alienation are all feelings the child of an incarcerated parent may experience. Visitation between parents and children is believed to be the answer to limit the amount of trauma. Until now, Illinois prison visitation procedures haven’t been child friendly but, that may be changing.

The Community Renewal Society, a group that advocates for social and economic issues, launched the Children of the Incarcerated Campaign in 2007. The society has recently been raising awareness and asking for commitments from the Illinois Department of Corrections to make prison visitation both easier and more enjoyable for families.

The society held a public meeting on Nov. 12 at the Pullman Presbyterian Church, 550 E. 103rd St., to list demands of the new IDOC director, Michael Randle, but he didn’t attend. Instead, he sent two of his employees with the authority to make commitments to the society, other organizations and community members.

Five out of six requests were granted. One commitment the IDOC made was allowing real contact between parents and children instead of a hug either before or after the visit. They also asked for 100 beds to be given to the family unity models, which allows them to be closer to their parents.

“The importance of real visitation really can’t be overstated,” said Alex Wiesendanger, organizer of the Civil Action Network, who also organized the event. “Children have the right to, and have the need to, see and touch their parents. That’s just an essential thing for any child. The wins around those changing of visitation procedures are obviously huge.”

Wiesendanger said the society requested that families be notified if the prison is on lockdown so families won’t travel downstate only to be turned away.

They also asked for the limited number of people who are allowed to visit at one time to increase. He said this is important because many incarcerated parents who have larger families are forced to take multiple trips.

“There are between 40,000-45,000 inmates in IDOC, but the number of children is so large [90,000], and obviously some of the inmates don’t have children,” Wiesendanger said. “You are dealing with a large number of families that have more than two children.”

The society wanted the IDOC to provide money from it’s budget to organizations that would give rides to family members who wanted to see an incarcerated parent. However, this request was turned down.

Christy Beighe-Byrne, director of Mentor and Volunteer Services of the Chicago Youth Center, said children having contact with their parents is imperative because it helps curb their feeling of loneliness and helps with communication.

“It’s also extremely traumatic for many children to suddenly have a parent come home after a long incarceration,” Wiesendanger said. “It will also reduce recidivism because inmates coming home, who have maintained a relationship with their family and transitioned back to being with the family, are much less likely to re-offend.”

The society requested that classification procedures, which decide where the parent will be sent, be determined by their distance from the family. This will make the prison location closer to home, so children can visit more easily.

David Groves, an elementary school teacher, said the experience of having a parent in prison is difficult for a child, but seeing the parent helps. He said having an incarcerated parent can disrupt a child’s schoolwork because children are unable to multitask and focus like adults.

“The reason that I’m on the team is because I never want people to forget that children are an agent of change,” Groves said. “I truly believe that if you deny an adult the opportunity to spend the time with their child while they’re incarcerated, you also deny them a hand up.”