As the crippling coronavirus shutdown heads into its seventh month, children of incarcerated parents remain even more isolated from their loved ones behind bars – a still largely invisible population under special strain during COVID-19.
Visitations with family members at prisons and jails have been largely suspended since the pandemic began in March, advocates said at a virtual event on Tuesday, while millions of children across the country struggle with the stigma of incarceration and the emotional toll of separation during exceptionally terrifying times.
“It feels like if I was in a position like my father’s in, being locked up, isolated from the outside world,” said Anthony Funes, a college student who participates in a youth group for the children of incarcerated parents through the Osborne Association, a nonprofit supporting families affected by the criminal justice system in New York.
Fuentes said the strain of maintaining connection with his dad and keeping up with school during the pandemic has left him reeling at times.
Members of a panel organized by the Children’s Defense Fund-California and the Bay Area Children of Incarcerated Parents Partnership underscored the challenges faced by Fuentes and other children of the imprisoned, and called for called for more awareness of their plight and greater support of approaches to keep them connected to family – from more opportunities for letter writing to after school programs.
Allison Hollihan, senior policy manager for the Osborne Center for Justice Across Generations, joined the call Tuesday to describe how efforts to quell the spread of COVID-19 inside detention facilities has made access with family members virtually impossible for countless prisoners – an accumulation of emergency measures including the suspension of in-person visitation and quarantine and lockdowns that have limited access to phone calls.
In the wake of high rates of COVID-19 infection inside jails and prisons, that means children aren’t able to check to see if their parents are OK, and they can’t tell them how lonely they feel.
“The very time that families are in need of contact and conversation and access to each other to support each other,” Hollihan said, “for children who have incarcerated parents, that’s really been upended.”
Advocates from New York and California said Tuesday that the children of incarcerated parents have been left alone not only during a pandemic, but at a time when the country is experiencing a historic reckoning over racial injustice and racist police violence.
“For the Black and brown children of California, they are the soldiers in a war they did not begin,” said Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation and a longtime Bay Area activist.
Nationwide, a stunning 2.7 million American children have an incarcerated parent, according to a study from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Mirroring the country’s criminal justice system, racial disparities are rife. One in 9 African American children and 1 in 28 Latino children have a parent behind bars, compared with just 1 in 57 white children in this country.
And in an era of mass incarceration – with a still-towering number of people held in U.S. prisons – the ranks of children left behind has surged as well. A 2016 policy brief from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more than 5 million children have had a parent locked up at some point in their lives, including 503,000 in California.
There is limited research on the impact of a parent’s incarceration on children, but it is believed to negatively impact children’s well-being, increasing the risk of developmental delays and mental health issues. The experience may also lead to health problems later in life, like a much greater likelihood to develop substance abuse issues in adulthood.
Funes said for children with poor access to computers, even virtual visits with parents are inaccessible these days. When his father was locked up at New York City’s Rikers Island, Funes said he would go to the public library to log on free of charge to video-conferencing calls with his father. With many cities still sheltering in place and public libraries unavailable, that may no longer be an option, he said.
For Alyssa Tamboura, whose father was incarcerated at California’s San Quentin prison for 13 years beginning when she was 9 years old, the unsettling nature of the pandemic has stirred up childhood memories.
“The last time I felt this uncertain was when I didn’t know when my father was coming home,” said Tamboura, now 27.
As founder and director of the Santa Cruz, California-based Walls to Bridges – an organization that works to address the trauma and emotional needs of system-impacted families – Tamboura said caregivers of children with incarcerated parents are also juggling innumerable new challenges now.
As the country grapples with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police officers, children and families of incarcerated people “still feel invisible in this moment,” she said.
Many of these parents and caregivers have lost jobs in recent months, with some having to make a destabilizing move because they now can’t afford the rent. They also have to coordinate online learning and manage children’s feelings of loss during the pandemic – the cancellation of visits with parents adding to the ongoing trauma of family separation.
To mitigate the pain wrought by coronavirus, Walls to Bridges is using books to promote family bonds. Children receive a book bearing a personalized message from their incarcerated family member, and the organization later sends a picture of the child with the book back to the parent.
Others have found comfort in advocacy, members of the Osborne Association said Tuesday.
During the spring, members of the group’s Youth Action Council – including Funes – traveled to Albany in support of legislation that would make it easier for incarcerated parents in New York to stay in closer contact with families.
The bill by state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery would require the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to hold parents in the facility closest to their minor children’s home if possible. After passing through the Legislature, the bill is now on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk.
Over many trips to the New York state capital, Funes said the experience of talking to politicians and lobbying for legislation to help the imprisoned and their families has given him courage and made him feel comfortable speaking out.
“I’m no longer afraid to just say what’s bothering me,” Funes said, “or to talk about an issue if it’s not morally correct.”